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Are Blasé V.I. Health Officials Ready For Mosquito-Borne ‘Zika’ Disease?

juan figueroa serville
Health’s Juan Figueroa-Serville

PARAMARIBO – A new mosquito-transmitted virus called “Zika” could mean more bad news for Caribbean tourism.

In response to the latest report by the Caribbean Public Health Agency of five confirmed cases of Zika virus in an unnamed Caribbean country, Grenada has heightened its disease surveillance system, local daily the Barnacle reported this week.

The Pan American Health Organization separately indicated that the cases occurred in Suriname.

Likewise, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health is urging people to be more vigilant in cleaning up their environment and destroying mosquito breeding sites.

This year already saw a plague of foul-smelling sargassum seaweed clog beaches all over the Caribbean, driving away tourists and necessitating long and expensive cleanups.

There is usually some annual wash-up of sargassum, but the spike this year has baffled scientists and policymakers. Chuanmin Hu, a professor of optical oceanography at the University of South Florida, calculated that there were 12,300 square miles of sargassum this July, compared with 2,300 square miles four years earlier.

In Antigua the piles of seaweed grew more than four feet high, forcing some people to abandon their homes. And in September, Tobago’s legislature declared a natural disaster as the stench of decomposing seaweed, and the dead fish and turtles caught within it, caused nausea among tourists, according to the Washington Post.

In August, Hilary Beckles, the vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies, called sargassum “the greatest single threat to the Caribbean economy I can imagine.” He noted that Mexico had been hit hard and that authorities there are spending more than $9 million and hiring 4,600 people to clean up the country’s Caribbean beaches.

Beckles explained that using Mexico’s strategy, Caribbean countries would need more than 13 times that level of funding and 20 times the amount of manpower.

“What you are looking at is maybe $120 million . . . and probably we would have to deploy over 100,000 people to carry out a similar strategy across the Caribbean…” he said. He also called for a Sargassum support fund and said “I believe we need some institution building. We need a Sargassum Emergency Agency since this is going to be the new normal.”

But while excavators, suction pumps, and rakes can physically cart away seaweed, it’s not so straightforward (or possible) to eliminate the disease-carrying mosquitoes. Zika is just the latest such virus out of several nasty ones in the region. Malaria and dengue fever are endemic to parts of the Caribbean, and chikungunya is a relatively recent addition. And currently there is no vaccine or treatment for Zika.

Earlier this year, the Grenadian Health Ministry began its public awareness and education campaign on the Zika virus after suspected cases were reported in Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

Yet all of the “best practices” being advocated by public health officials are aimed at reducing people’s exposure to mosquitoes, for example by clearing out any sources of standing water near houses and using insect repellant with DEET.

But these measures won’t eliminate the diseases; there is far too much natural habitat in the wet tropics for mosquitoes to breed in. So if Zika arrives in Grenada or Jamaica, it will be there permanently.

The Virgin Islands is hoping that this year’s sargassum seaweed invasion was a once-in-a-generation calamity, and this may turn out to be the case.

But if Zika spreads to new areas, it will be just year one of many new public health dangers such as chikngunya and Lyme disease.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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