CASTRIES, Saint Lucia – Wednesday, February 3, 2016 – No St. Lucian will want our island to be a casualty of the Zika virus considering its health and economic implications.
We saw and felt Chikungunya. Our Chief Medical Officer is under no illusions indicating even if we are Zika free it’s only a matter of time.
She is a professional and will know medical dangers when they appear. Further she must be privy to our health situation, capabilities, resources and what we will and will not be able to withstand. But what the average citizen fears is we have a struggling health system and public health practices are not the best.
So in our concerned way last week, we indicated that it may be time for citizens to hear from our highest officials on plans and action for any eventuality. We asked if our Health and Tourism ministers are cooperating in local contingency measures and if there is even an OECS or CARICOM position.
But certainly with or without them we would need to be strategic and prepare ourselves even if to minimize on the extent of its effects here.
Following our release citizens may have been amazed but we were shocked that our Minister of Tourism was on television downplaying the Zika virus. He indicated that it was not yet here, it is nothing to worry about and is being blown out of proportions.
Simply dismissing an eventuality Sir will not help, but preparation always does. We live in the electronic age where information is easily available and we would certainly like Mr. Theophilus to update himself with the information, repercussions and both the regional and international happenings as it relates to the virus.
Last week WHO met in emergency session on Zika and considering its explosive nature recommended it be treated as a public health emergency of international concern. Now their experts are deliberating on a possible global emergency declaration.
It is trail blazing certain parts of the Americas and which is right at our doorstep. There is now one confirmed case in the USA of the virus being sexually transmitted and which gives a new dimension of concern.
In Trinidad and Tobago with no reported cases their Health Minister calls Zika a scary situation and took the decision to declare a national public health emergency.
A Rapid Response Unit has been formed to deal with the threat of Zika and the mosquito. Fogging, spraying and information dissemination are their first responses and they are now on an even greater alert for carnival.
In Antigua the cabinet of ministers has met with top government officials to discuss an already articulated government national plan of defense. Prime Minister Browne has implored his technocrats to be proactive, move swiftly, take every precaution necessary and even if an almost impossibility, implement every measure to halt the entry of the virus into Antigua.
Their Cabinet of Ministers is now considering allowing all mosquito defense items to be imported free of duties and other taxes. Like Trinidad they are moving towards intense fogging measures.
Agreed the Zika virus is not deadly as Ebola but the stakes are still high as Zika spreads more easily than Ebola, typically as it is vector borne.
That in itself is a good ‘break’ since as we await its likely arrival there is the opportunity to be proactive and step up control measures of this prolific vector and its habitats.
But that will require a large scale coordinated government effort even as we implore citizens to also play their part. We say that too because irrespective of what citizens do any fall out will always fall right back on the state and by extension the government.
WHO already has a list of countries pregnant women are advised not to visit. Certain airlines have implemented delay or ticket transfer arrangements for customers traveling to affected areas. One or two affected countries are advising their women to delay pregnancies for about two years.
So we are asking, not so as to cause panic but for seeing responsible leadership in the face of this threat. Our economy is largely tourism driven and the implications are real.
We have a yachting industry that can enhance vector movement between islands. So we found, of all people, our Tourism Minister Theophilus’ response casual and irresponsible.
Not too long ago it took a lot to evoke from our Ministry of Health their full and articulated plans for Ebola. It finally came but very slowly and that prolonged wait did not help our confidence in the ministry’s ability to respond to any eventuality.
Is it going to be the same for Zika?