Nothing is quite what it seems.
Since the World Health Organization’s declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on February 1, I have been wading through online articles about the Zika Virus. I am baffled, confused, alarmed and apprehensive, all at the same time. I suspect many Jamaicans are. In fact, I was even wondering if there was any point in writing this blog post, as I am struggling to sort out the facts from the rumors and theories – including the conspiracy theories that are inevitably rising to the surface. Where exactly are we – where is Jamaica – with the Zika Virus today, Wednesday February 3, 2016?
I don’t know where to start. Perhaps first and foremost I should refer you to my fellow blogger Susan Goffe, who has been following the issue very closely (as she did when we were in the throes of chikungunya – an experience I will never forget). Her tweets from press briefings and other fora are much appreciated and I know she is trying her best to untangle the web of information that is coming in from all angles. I would direct you also to her important blog, and in particular to this post, which she wrote a few days ago: https://rightstepsandpouitrees.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/for-jamaica-beawarezikaisnear-becomes-beawarezikaishere/
Here, Susan asks a number of burning questions that she would have liked to have posed at Monday’s press briefing at Jamaica House, if she had been present. The meeting was attended by a veritable phalanx of Ministers. It was the day after the People’s National Party’s election date announcement rally, and the administration wanted to impress us with their seriousness. I must add that I think our relatively new Minister of Health Horace Dalley is doing a far better job than his predecessor at keeping us informed. He has a very pleasant and open personality. He is more accessible, and I think this helps. Nevertheless, the press briefing did not tell us much that was new, except that approximately 27 suspected samples have been sent to the Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) laboratory for testing. One assumes this is the total amount that has been sent so far. When were they sent, and when will we be getting the results? The Ministry is urging more people who are feeling ill to go to the doctor and get tested. You can watch the entire briefing here: http://opm.gov.jm/videos/jamaica-house-press-briefing-february-2-2016-zikv/ and the Prime Minister’s television address on the topic at the same link.
Now, as we know, the first case of the Zika Virus in Jamaica was reported last week: a four-year-old boy living in Portmore, who has since recovered – and who had recently traveled to Texas. So is this to be viewed as an “imported” case (although U.S. authorities said all their Zika Virus cases were imported from elsewhere in the Americas? The U.S. now has over 30 Zika Virus cases). The Ministry is saying they are still investigating “where the infection occurred.” Portmore is well-known (notorious!) for its thriving mosquito population, having been built, misguidedly, on a swamp. So I set up a little red flag there, although only a tiny one, since I have learned that the Aedes aegypti mosquito does not live in the ground or in swamps, but in buckets of water, old tires etc. Oddly also, the child in Portmore reported symptoms on January 17 but a sample was not sent for testing until January 26. Considering that the infection only lasts for a week at most, what does this mean?
Speaking of Texas, the infection of a Texan by a partner back from Venezuela was only the second reported case of sexual transmission since the Zika virus was discovered in 1947. So – although this news brought another shudder through the Jamaican population – this may just be an oddity that we should not need to worry about. Or should we? (“No sex, no babies,” joked a friend online). And I haven’t mentioned a possible connection with the rare but serious progressive neurological disorder, the Guillain-Barré syndrome.
On January 18, before our first case was announced, the Health Ministry put out a statement advising women to delay pregnancy for the next six to twelve months. Although the connection between the Zika Virus and the incidence of microcephaly in newborn babies has not been proved, the Ministry was being cautious. Understood. Globally, though, the picture looks murkier. It appears that despite 20,000 cases in Colombia there has not been a single case of microcephaly there. If it is only in one area of Brazil, what other factors may be at play? (see below for a couple of theories).
I have some questions (as does Susan Goffe) about the procedures and protocols for testing and for tracking those living in particular areas (the Minister was cagey yesterday about which particular section of the Portmore area the lone case occurred in) – as well as the tracking of pregnant women. Is testing being conducted rigorously by doctors for every case of fever, for example?
The impact on tourism is yet to be seen. Both Canada and the United States have issued travel advisories for the Caribbean. You can find the latest from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) here: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices/alert/zika-virus-caribbean It’s pretty certain that many will be canceling their vacations, in the middle of the tourist season.
Well, one positive spinoff of the whole thing is that there seems to be an increasing awareness of the awful condition of our environment – certainly in urban areas – and the Government has declared February 5 as a “national clean-up day.” That sounds familiar, because we had something similar when Chikungunya began to spread. Our street has never looked so neat and tidy; hardly a discarded lunch box anywhere (yes, we are a messy people). Yet, there are still gullies full of refuse and standing, stinking water that continues to breed mosquitoes (has anyone visited Seaview Gardens lately?) There are still tires lying around that will collect rainwater – and we have had some rain. Can’t old tires be stored inside a building?
Ahem! I have a confession to make. For the past four or five days I have been under the weather. My symptoms have been as follows: awful headaches; a slight fever at nights, when I have vivid dreams that try to extend themselves into my waking hours; aches and pains – but then, Chikungunya pains have never completely left me since October 2014; and fatigue. Nothing more, but I should probably have gone to the doctor and did not. This is a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” Who knows what it was? It was probably one of those vague nameless bugs that seem to hang around every corner these days. But please, if you are feeling unwell go to the doctor.
A particular phrase keeps coming to mind when I reflect on the anxiety and nerves that the Zika Virus has sparked in the Americas: Pandora’s Box. Is this a new box of duppies and unknown horrors that we have opened? How did we find the lock and the key? Was the key that of humans’ ongoing and increasing interference with the once perfect balance of our environment? Has this interference (and specifically, the destruction of our rain forests) exposed us and created a “heated-up” atmosphere that encourages the proliferation of mosquitoes and other creatures that transmit diseases to humans? With El Niño set to wane by the end of the summer,
Or perhaps the Aedes aegypti is a product of urbanization. A new Washington Post article also reports that major dam projects in Africa have resulted in huge increases in insect-borne diseases, as well as irrigation and river training projects. You can read the article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/02/03/the-hidden-environmental-factors-behind-the-spread-of-zika-and-other-deadly-diseases/
That said – is this all a “smokescreen” as some conspiracy theorists are murmuring? Is the Zika Virus panic some kind of cover-up for the allegedly sinister activities of Oxitec, a British company that is creating genetically modified mosquitoes? Or are Brazilian authorities trying to cover up a vaccination program that went badly wrong?
One thing I do know. We can’t mess around with our environment on a major scale, as we have been doing for at least a hundred years, and expect no consequences. Now it’s coming back to haunt us, in a thousand different ways. This is just one of them.
I hear a buzzing in my ear.
You can keep up to date on the Zika Virus at the WHO website here: http://www.who.int/entity/emergencies/zika-virus/en/index.html and follow all the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) edicts, which pretty much replicate them. You can also share their infographics – here’s one below.
2 thoughts on “The Enigma of the Zika Virus: A Pandora’s Box, A Smokescreen, Or What?”
In the reported kerkuffle between the TVJ reporter, the Information Minister and the Ministry of Health officials, one fact / factor seems to have been sidelined. That is, it really does not matter much whether pregnant women avoid Portmore altogether or whether communities are stigmatised..
Portmore is a dormitory community from which thousands of people travel every morning and return in the evenings. So a man could get infected over there who then travels to Montego Bay or Stony Hill or the Kingston metropolis. where he gets bitten again by one of the little pharaohs which then later bites an already pregnant woman.
I concede that an area with a specific case could more easily be the source of an outbreak but the officials need to stress that it is infected people who carry around the virus. So a quarrel about naming the community or the possible stigmatising of an area overshadows the bigger picture..
Yes – I thought about discussing that fuss with the journalist, but decided not to go into it, at least in this post. There were so many other things to say. It’s a very good point though, Colin, and I don’t think officials really made people aware of the fact that people move up and down the island every day. So you are right, the “source” of the virus is irrelevant – and so is the fact that the child traveled to Texas. It could be all over the island already. But that sounds a lot more scary to people, so officials would rather avoid pointing them in that direction! Thanks so much for making this point.