Chikungunya crisis looming
CHIKUNGUNYA is a health problem that is overwhelming the Caribbean and getting out of hand.
That assessment has come from Dr James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, CARPHA, who told the SUNDAY SUN that although Barbados and 26 other nations across the region hadn’t recorded a single case of Ebola now taking a heavy toll on a handful of African states, the same couldn’t be said for chikungunya, the mosquito-borne disease.
The CARPHA head attributed the low risk of Ebola spreading across the Caribbean to several factors. They range from the absence of the animals carrying the disease and the relatively high level of education of the population to the fact that people in the region don’t hunt in large forests for the animals and consume their meat as happens in several African countries. Next were military conflicts in some African states which had “compromised” the health infrastructure.
“That’s the rationale for the low risk of Ebola in the Caribbean,” he added.
Hospedales confirmed that the Caribbean had recorded at about 500 000 cases of chikungunya disease and that at least 30 people had died from it.
“Most of those folks had some pre-existing medical conditions,” he explained. “The problem with it is that the population hadn’t been exposed to it (before) and in some countries we have had a high number of people affected in a short time.
“It not only affects the work environment but it hits the home and people must know what they have to do in general and what they need to do specifically if someone in the family has severe joint pains consistent with chikungunya or dengue fever.
“Dengue fever has been around for centuries, years, decades and we have not really been on top of it. We have to come up with some new approaches,” he added.
“Chikungunya is getting beyond the capability of the countries to deal with it. The countries are doing their best. They are educating, spraying and spending within the limits of their resources. But it is costly. The disease has been spreading quickly in the Caribbean and the reason is that everybody is susceptible. Transmission is an open avenue.”
He described the mosquito that spreads it as “a day-by-day mosquito that can be found around almost every home in the Caribbean, “it is everywhere” and “we have lost control of that”, he added.
“Every jurisdiction in the Caribbean has been affected,” he said.
Hospedales worries about its negative impact on the region’s tourism industry which was “recovering” from the 2008-09 economic crisis.
“The governments in region can’t afford a downturn. As the upcoming tourism high season goes into full gear we fear that we may see a backlash from it,” he said. “We have to take it serious. We need some new strategies.”
That explains why a meeting is being planned in October to discuss the health challenges with governments, the private sector and other interests.
In addition, when Caricom leaders come to New York in September for the United Nations General Assembly, Hospedales hopes they will set aside time to sit down with the region’s top health experts and ministers of health to consider both the Ebola risks and the chikungunya nightmare.
“I would love to see that happen,” he added. “The health ministers are going to be in Washington September 25 to 27 and it is during that same week that the heads of government are going to be in New York. So there can be a meeting to come to grips with what we are facing.”
A session with the heads of government would be important because of heavy investment of funds in the health care sector that would be required, Hospedales asserted.
“We have had meetings with the epidemiologists, the chief medical officers on the problems in the last several months but with the Ebola in the last weeks, we have a clear idea what needs to be done technically but it needs the support of the political directorate at the highest levels,” he said.
“It’s especially true of the chikungunya disease which involves people of all walks of life.”