EDITORIAL - What should we do?
Thu, 04/21/2016 - 12:00am
In February this year when the Heads of Government of CARICOM met in Belize for the 27th Inter-Sessional Meeting, it was said that Zika Virus was to be addressed. Two months later little is being said as it relates to a united stance on this disease, said to also be spread through sexual contact. We say that noting that few persons are aware that the second week in May is to be designated ‘Caribbean Mosquito Awareness Week’.
This Zika virus has been spreading throughout Latin America and the Caribbean like wild fire, with Brazil in particular facing several thousand cases of the virus, and hundreds of cases of microcephaly, which the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention only last week concluded is linked to Zika. We certainly thought that after the World Health Organisation declared Zika as a public health emergency, the Caribbean would have been more energised to address the issue.
But, alas, we are seeing little of this, and more of individual countries devising their own action plans, even as we have heard little of the proposal from CARICOM for countries to reduce import tax on insect repellents and insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
This is not acceptable, as 15 of the 38 countries that have reported cases of the virus are from the Caribbean. And while in the region there were previously no systems in place to register the number of microcephaly cases, which means there is no baseline data to refer to, we are sure that there has to be some idea of the incidence in the Caribbean based on individual country levels, so we can see if the cases rise over the coming months.
The fact is the odds are not in our favour as it relates to the spread of Zika. First, the Caribbean is a prime breeding ground for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito and when the hurricane season starts in June, the mosquito population is likely to increase exponentially. Added to that, given that Caribbean people have not before been affected by the virus, it is likely they will be more vulnerable to it. These factors alone should push Governments in the region to do more to reduce the mosquito populations and prevent the spread of Zika, as well as Dengue and Chikungunya. Perhaps they will have to institute penalties to ensure that citizens do their part to reduce mosquito breeding sites and stop the spread of diseases.
But Zika has indeed raised a number of questions, which though not being asked and answered, still remain. In particular, if Zika can indeed cause microcephaly, what are Caribbean governments going to do to stem a rise in babies born with small heads? Some countries have suggested that women not get pregnant for two years allowing the virus to die down, but in a country like Barbados where birth rates have fallen and the fertility rate is also low, but Barbadians are living longer, can we afford to instruct persons not to start or expand their families? The fact is, life expectancy in Barbados is higher than the rest of region, at about 76 years, so this country faces a serious challenge of not replacing our citizens as fast as is needed.
It is truly a catch 22 situation, as those who choose to get pregnant face the possibility that their offspring could be born with a brain defect, and then not grow up to be productive members of society. That could then put further strain on our already stretched national health care budget, especially for those who cannot afford private health care.
No one wants to deny a person the right to have a child, but it is important that all understand the possible consequences and are suitably prepared – mentally and financially – to deal with those consequences. As such, we believe that there needs to be robust public education undertaken through this country and across the region to ensure that women of child bearing age are aware of the potential dangers of contracting the disease that often only manifests symptoms in one in five persons, and what precautions need to be taken to prevent infection.