The Ministry of Health and Wellness will undertake a survey, next week, to determine the prevalence of schistosomiasis.
Saint Lucia had a surge in bilharzia cases between the 1940s – 1960s which resulted in government’s formulation of a schistosomiasis eradication plan. Today, health officials say the disease is under control.
“We believe that Saint Lucia has practically eliminated the disease from the country,” Dr. Merlene Fredericks, Chief Medical Officer with the Ministry of Health said. “Persons may recall that years ago we had a huge problem in terms of bilharzia with many of those infected showing symptoms like an enlarged liver and spleen that results in an enlarged abdomen, and anemia, because the worms feed on the blood. But right now, we’re seeing very few cases. And to determine whether we have eliminated the disease we need to carry out a survey amongst young children to see what percentage of them might be affected. We do predict that it will be a very low percentage.”
The survey will certify with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that Saint Lucia is free from the disease.
“This is a very important survey that will confirm that we no longer have schistosomiasis, and most importantly, to find out if there has been any recent transmission, identify the areas where there is transmission, and to move quickly to eliminate it,” Nahum Jn. Baptiste, National Epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health said.
“We’ve had communities in Saint Lucia that have had [transmission rates] as high as 60 percent in the past. We know that we eliminated that disease way back in 1985, but over the last 10 years we have seen about 37 cases, and among them, one school aged child. Diseases are such that even if you have eliminated them, you have to keep working at prevention or they will resurge. So again, we are asking parents to support the survey.”
The parasitic worm that causes schistosomiasis goes through two main stages. In one stage, it can infect humans, and in another stage, it infects certain freshwater snails. Health officials have spotted the snails that can transmit bilharzia in the communities of Babonneau, Micoud and Soufriere.
Dr. Fredericks said: “We are seeing very few cases right now, and believe that we have eliminated the disease, but we still need to verify elimination. So we will be sampling 2000 children, and we’re expecting a very low prevalence, perhaps less than 10—but we still need to verify.
“Now if we realize that we do have a bigger situation than what we expected, then we will re-implement [the bilharzia] program and ensure that anyone who might be exposed or infected is treated.”
Dr. Fredericks said treatment available that can cure patients of the disease.