Reckless abandon? Health epidemics and the prevalence of ignorance

I try to be as well informed as is reasonably possible. But, I know that there are many things that I do know or understand. I rely on ‘experts’ to help me fathom many topics and guide my actions. Over recent months, I have had reasons to be more than a little concerned about health issues–not mine, personally, but the world’s in general. Two diseases appear on the verge of becoming rampant, and neither of them has known cures.

The first is the Ebola virus, taking hold in some west African countries, having first resurfaced in the Republic of Guinea. That concerns a lot not least because I used to live and work there, and have friends living there and perhaps unable to avoid contracting the disease. Sure, health facilities are poor in many of the affected countries, but the simple precautions in health care can go a long way and I remain hopeful that that in combination with more aggressive control of people’s behaviour will at least brake the march of that virus.

The second is the Chikungunya virus.chikungunya1 Up to a few months ago, I had heard that it was located in one Caribbean island (St. Martin), but since it had become locally present in many Caribbean countries, but not yet in Jamaica. In recent weeks, that has changed. Jamaica now has its cases of local transmission, not just ‘imported’ cases of the virus.

I understand from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website that no vaccine exists to prevent chikungunya virus infection or disease. So, what can I do to protect myself? Two things, primarily: 

  • Prevent chikungunya virus infection by avoiding mosquito bites
  • The mosquitoes that spread the chikungunya virus bite mostly during the daytime.

That puts me at risk because I do a lot of outdoor activities in areas where mosquitoes are prevalent during the day time. So, rather than just hope, I now routinely apply repellent. Also wear long trousers, sometimes, especially in recent weeks after rains have started again. I still get bitten, but so far have had no adverse symptoms. If I display any, my inclination is to go and get tested. My daughter is also doing daytime activities at school and I urged her to take repellent with her and use it.

But, am I amongst the exceptions? I noticed over recent days that the sound and fury about the ChikV has risen, and some politicians have been taking bites out of each other with stinging words–sorry, I couldn’t resist. Let’s put the political games to one side, but note that the real problem is a lack of clear and trustworthy information.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is saying that only 24 confirmed cases exist. Meantime, a rising number of people are claiming to have the virus. Yet, the MOH also says that most people are not being tested, and they have about 200 cases of tests awaiting confirmation. The ChikV has symptoms similar to flu and dengue fever (and MOH notes ‘160 suspected cases of dengue fever, of which 13 were laboratory confirmed). Many people like to think they are good at self-diagnosis, and have stated “I have Chikingunya…” 

Jamaica is not unique in having people who are ignorant of many basics about health and hygiene, so I won’t laugh too much when I hear stories of people thinking that they can contract ChikV from chickens. Education is one big gap across many topics and health is no better off. Moreover, we have a culture that believes either that many things can be cured just with the right bush, or by prayer. 

I’m partly sympathetic to the MOH, but I am also tempted to slam them with a big piece of wood. They have brought confusion into the mix by their own tendency to not address the spread of the virus a little earlier, including refusing to talk about it on radio and accusing the media of spreading panic. If anything, the absence of clear messages from the MOH fed panic by making people think things were worse than stated. 

We know that our resources are strapped, so people as much as institutions have to make things work on a near shoestring budget. At the very least, we now have a system that alerts arriving passengers of the potential of the disease and what they should do if symptoms appear.

But, I’m also for proactive information, so want to hear from the MOH more than I hear from other voices on this topic. Can they try to do that?