The National Health Security Committee headed by Cabinet Secretary, Darrel Montrope, zoomed in on the Zika Virus as a national priority on the heels of the declaration by Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), that Zika virus (ZIKV) represents a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
The National Health Security Committee appointed by Cabinet looks focuses on health security threats facing the country and develops strategies for combating those threats. With global travel and tourism being a key part of St. Lucia’s national development strategy, health becomes a major issue for St. Lucia.
Montrope said, “There is no issue affecting St. Lucia that is vertical. All the challenges we are going to face are more horizontal, meaning that they cut across sectors, be they health or agriculture or any of those things they will cut across sectors and the Health Security Committee is a multi-sectoral grouping that will look to how we manage the health threats affecting the country.”
With the Zika Virus threatening to affect St. Lucia the spotlight falls on the Health and Security Committee to provide a clear plan of action. The Tourism sector has already witnessed cancellations of some booking due to the uneasiness ZikV has created around the world.
“Once Tourism is impacted, the economic sector will similarly be impacted. It has implications for Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, so we need everyone at the table to understand the threats but more than just the threats the responses. Because, we have to breed confidence not just in ourselves but also to inspire the external environment, our trade partners, that we have systems in place to respond to particular threats and challenges.” Montrope stated.
To date St. Lucia has no confirmed cases of Zika, though the virus has been confirmed in neighbouring Martinique and Barbados however authorities are bracing and preparing for that eventuality.
“The Point for us is in terms of how we respond to and ensuring that systems are in place to deal with it. So we want to encourage St. Lucians to be more sanitary, I mean how we dispose of garbage, it’s a perennial problem. We lament about flooding but it’s not just the problem it will cause for flooding but also the problem it will cause for breeding of mosquitoes. We have to manage all of those things. So, from the public health national policy perspective is to encourage St. Lucians to be more hygienic, take better precaution.” Montrope added.
The Cabinet Secretary said public education will play a major role in creating awareness and the desire behaviour change needed to combat the threat of Zika by eliminating the breeding sites of the Aedes aegypti Mosquito. Zika, he said, has different impacts on individuals including a potential paralysis and so what we have been discussing here is in terms of the procurement of equipment and stuff like that to help treat the disease once it has found itself in St. Lucia.”
According to Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Merlene Fredericks, St. Lucia like other countries around the world are to be IHR (International Health Regulations) Compliant by 2016. This is the primary function of the National Health Security Committee and diseases such as Ebola, Chikungunya and Zika Virus are integral to the whole aspect of country preparedness in terms of IHR.
“The World Health Organization has declared Zika Virus Disease a public health event of international concern, so they have actually lifted the alert of Zika Virus Disease to a very high level which will allow greater resources to be mobilized to address this event. To Date we have not confirmed Zika Virus Disease in St. Lucia. We are and we continue to send sample to the Caribbean Public Health Lab in Trinidad, so we are testing for it but we have not confirmed the disease here.”
Dr. Fredericks added that though studies have shown Zika to be a very mild disease where most persons who have the virus may not be affected or any never show signs and symptoms, it has been closely associated with Microcephaly or congenital abnormalities in babies in pregnant women who get infected in the early stages of pregnancy.
There has also been an association with Guillian Barre Disease, a paralytic type illness which usually occurs a week or two after a person has recovered from the Zika Virus Disease.
“And as such we are encouraging all persons but especially our pregnant women, especially in the first few months of pregnancy, we are encouraging all women to ensure that they are protected, that the mosquito doesn’t bit them, that they get rid of the breeding places and take all precautions necessary from being bitten by the mosquito.”
According to CARPHA, Zika has been confirmed in five territories of the Caribbean Community. A number of other Caribbean jurisdictions have also reported Zika transmission.
The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), has supported its member states by enhancing regional surveillance and the Agency’s capacity for ZIKV testing, by monitoring regional and global developments, partnering with regional and international stakeholders, and providing updates for Ministries of Health and other key stakeholders.