IF EBOLA SHOULD COME KNOCKING

Because Jamaicans love political games, we continue this farcical call-to-arms over the chikungunya virus.

It’s reached such a stage of unreasoned hyperbole that a child tragically falls in the shower, hits his head and dies but blinkered, sensation-seeking media gleefully repeat the rumour he was also suffering from ChickV-type symptoms. Without having the courage to come right out and allege ChickV killed him, media never fails to include ChickV in every report. Thank goodness for good old Jamaican sense of humour.

A weh de docta a prescribe fi it?
‘One panadol, one panadol quick!’
Oonu come ya, oonu no hear wha dey dung ya

una de flu; measle; pneumonia;
A diahhroea mek pickney belly run ya
but a de first we a hear chicken gun ya
.”

It remains true, as I wrote in my September 23 Column, Chicken Goons Ya, “Serious complications aren’t common, but, in older people, chikungunya can contribute to the cause of death” especially where pre-existing conditions cause “serious complications”. But, the real news is Jamaica has a mosquito eradication problem because we prioritize external debt payments, new SUVs for Ministers and Grand Galas over health. So we must protect ourselves from the mosquito holocaust.

Mosquito bite inna foot and it a bite inna neck.
Mek sure sey yu ’ave yu mosquito net.
Wey yu sey? Yu can’t ketch it? Yu wan’ stick a bet?
Check de hole inna yu backyard where water collect.
Me inna long sleeve t’ink a bleach me a bleach?
Me a stay outta de mosquito reach.

That’s not sexy enough for our commercially challenged media which creates never ending contention over how many ChickV cases exist. Nobody acknowledges no country knows the total number affected by any epidemic.

Why isn’t media asking our health officials whether we’re prepared for the possible arrival of Ebola which, despite the nonsense bruited about, is very much a global epidemic in the making. We had a recent rumour of an alleged Ebola victim here. This is how the Health Ministry quelled the rumour.

Dr Kevin Harvey, acting permanent secretary in the Health Ministry:

I…categorically state…we have no suspected case of Ebola in the country. We aren’t investigating a suspected case and we have no reason to consider we have anyone in the country at this time suspected of having Ebola. I want to dispel rumours surrounding a patient who was admitted to University Hospital yesterday afternoon. The person is in fact a 65-year-old senior physician who travelled to Trinidad; returned to [Jamaica] feeling ill….and was admitted to the hospital. There’s absolutely no travel history to any Ebola-affected country or possibility of contact.” (Gleaner; September 25).

Despite existing, accessible testing centres, no tests for Ebola were attempted. According to Harvey, there’s no way Ebola can come to Jamaica because Ebola affected nations carefully screen all travellers before permitting them to leave. Well, goody, goody two shoes! Forget science! Let’s just assume.

Digest these:

  • The recent Ebola epidemic death toll officially exceeds 3,000 but WHO says these numbers “vastly underestimate the true scale of the epidemic
  • Although the hardest hit countries are in West Africa (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone), WHO says it’s growing “exponentially”. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of miles away on the other side of Africa, there’s a “separate, unrelated outbreak of Ebola” (believed to be a different strain of the viral haemorrhagic fever) that’s killed more than 40;
  • This time around, the virus is killing from 70 to 90% of victims;
  • These numbers are greater than all previous Ebola outbreaks combined. The disease is spreading and threatening to become a global epidemic;
  • The United Nations recently held a special high-level meeting on Ebola at its annual General Assembly. US President Barack Obama called Ebola a “horrific disease” that’s “a potential threat to the world.”, President Obama warned that, while the world had started to launch its response, “We need to be honest with ourselves. It’s not enough.”
  • Addressing the meeting, Secretary-General Ban-Ki-Moon said “Ebola is raging” while other Heads of State warned Ebola threatens the world
  • Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Koroma, speaking by teleconference, said “Ebola isn’t only a disease of Sierra Leone and its neighbours; it’s a disease of the world.” He explained “Globalization, increasing urbanization and denser networks of people rapidly moving between rural and urban areas and across borders is fuel for greater transmission of formerly isolated viral diseases,”

Mind Jah lick yu wid diseases (hey).
Mind Jah lick yu wid diseases.
De mos’ dangerous diseases.
I sey de mos’ dangerous diseases.
I talking like de elephantitis
(sic)
De odder one is de polo (sic) myelitis;
arthritis and de one diabetes.

To butcher a phrase famously used by our intrepid Works Minister, we can continue to get excited over “two mosquito” carrying a not-so-serious viral disease that’ll soon run its course. Or we can get serious about preparing for the possible advent of Ebola rather than depending on countries like Sierra Leone to stop Ebola from spreading. African health services have buckled under the strain of the Ebola crisis. There’s NO GUARANTEE, no matter what Dr Harvey says, that travellers from anywhere in today’s global village don’t come here accompanied by an unpleasant, uninvited guest.

Legendary DJ duo, (Papa) Michigan, born Anthony Fairclough, and (General) Smiley, born Errol Bennett, ruled the dancehall roost in the late 1970s/early 1980s with feel good melodies, conscious messages and unique sing-jay stylings. They combined to produce several monster hits including Nice up the Dance; Sugar Daddy; and Diseases. Research was a much maligned endeavour by producers and artists of the time so nobody bothered to tell Michi or Smiley that the diseases of which they were warning were actually “elephantiasis” and “polio” unrelated to inflamed elephants or horseback games.

The Chikungunya Song, recently recorded by 12-year-old sensation Wayne J, has jumped all over ChickV hysteria like Lovindeer on Gilbert.

There’s good news. Ebola isn’t spread by respiratory secretions or casual contact.  It’s not an airborne virus. It requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone severely ill with or recently deceased from Ebola, or by handling or eating undercooked, contaminated “bush meat” (e.g. bats or monkeys). This means we CAN prepare for Ebola.  We CAN avoid contracting this disease using easier strategies than dodging dive bombing mosquitoes. As in many of these viral enemies, the fundamental defence is good hygiene especially frequent hand washing and wearing of gloves when caring for or handling sick relatives. For the moment (experiments on possible vaccines and alternative case management is ongoing) treatment is symptomatic as in all viral infections.

Here are some things a government like Jamaica’s can do to prepare to restrict the spread of a virus like Ebola. We need an efficient system of case management, surveillance and contact tracing. All this can be summed up in one word: technology. So, my first question to our gregarious Health Minister is: are we equipped to track and trace infection origins and manage Ebola cases in proper quarantine environments?

A good laboratory service is also essential in order for speedy diagnosis. Because Ebola is contagious even after death, safe burials must be a priority. Do we have a system of safe burials? Are we prepared to stop Jamaican mourners’ barbaric habit of proving devotion by close contact with the bodies of loved ones? As is the case for all infectious diseases, social mobilisation agencies must be ready to inform and educate citizens. If, perish the thought, Ebola should come knocking, would we use the same social mobilisation services and communication skills we used with ChickV?

Banning cigarette smoking and decriminalising marijuana are attractive, vote-getting toys. Whipping up ChickV panic may be sound political counter-strategy. But, we can’t afford to ignore the real health demons lurking around every corner of today’s global village. It’s best to have a plan should any decide to play in our backyard.

Peace and Love

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