Chikungunya? Is it gonna get you?

Something very discernible has happened over the past month or so. A new word has started tripping off most people’s lips, or at least part of a word. ‘Chikungunya’. Say it slowly, as if you were a BBC announcer who’d practised it for hours before the first broadcast use. It’s not ‘chicken…’, but ‘chik-oon…’. Like many words that have odd syllables, people quickly revert to forms that are easier to remember of easier for them to say. So, jokers have had fun with ‘chicken gun man’, thinking this fits well with the common image of Jamacian banditry. We’ve had ‘chikun-gonhoerria’, reflecting, I guess, a nasty disease that we know already and fear. I like ‘chicken gungo peas’, which I use to my daughter and seems inoffensive.

All of this brought on by the real concern, even fear, that the island was being assailed by a demon virus.

A few points have made the word spread.

First, it seems that no sooner had the Ministry of Health come forward with a low number, than some opposition politicians latched onto what seemed like many more cases in certain constituencies alone, including that of the Minister of Health. AWKWARD! The Ministry said what it had verified, and the opposition said, “No way!”

Second, more people began to report symptoms. Friends, relatives, work colleagues; no one seemed safe. The symptoms are similar to dengue and flu, so even those claiming to have ‘it’ need to be viewed with a little scepticism, because most have not been tested. But, they have aches, pain, rashes, and have been recommended or decided for themselves that the pain killers with the active ingredient acetaminophen would be taken. Soon, pharmacies were running out of stock. Such is life in countries with limited foreign exchange.

Third, not just Jamaica, but a widening spread of countries in the Caribbean and nearby have reported cases, most notably, the Dominican Republic, with about 500,000. Though bigger in area and population, it’s still close enough for many Jamaicans to think that we should be similarly affected. The health ministry and its tiddly number were a joke, people felt.

Well, the ministry is not doing some damage control. Private doctors are having some blame put on them, for not reporting suspected cases: they’re too busy treating people and getting paid to fill out the forms. An official also went on TV last night and came as clean as a whistles, saying that between 30-60 percent of the country could be affected. If you believe what one observer has said–that you only get in once–then, maybe that’s for the better. Meantime, people are moaning and groaning and checking rashes.

A man I play golf with seem afflicted on Saturday, and by Sunday could barely walk. He was a little better yesterday. He’s taken his pills and drinking water.

The episode with this virus is not really fully formed yet. Many people find it odd that it’s apparently spread so fast, and wonder if that’s consistent with mosquito-borne infections. Others feel that ‘something is in the air’. The chik-v has similarities with other viruses, and the cost (about US$150) for the test, whose results don’t come back for 2-3 weeks, while the infection lasts about a week, dissuade many from taking it. Assume you have it. Take the pills. Pain gone, Survived.

But, while it’s forming, a slow lesson is being learned. That is the value of prevention. In this case, some basic hygienic practices to reduce the chances of viruses spreading. We had a long, dry period, and that kept certain things in check. The recent heaving rains and warm weather have been ideal for the re-emergence of the buzzers.

We built communities on swamps and did little to manage well the drainage, and … Portmoreitis (an constant mosquito infestation) is the result.

Jamaica’s not been a place that learns lessons well after a first bad experience. So, our little scrape with chik-v does not mean that we are anywhere like out of the woods.

Some people, like my wife, are good at learning. She’s filled the house with slow-buring organic candles that ward off mosquitoes and she routinely has a spraying spree with Baygon in the morning: it’s like the sound of wind through palms as I wake. Everyone has a spray repellent that can be carried, including my daughter in her school bag; some are organic (with lemon grass oil), others are heavy-duty chemicals (with DEET). Everyone sprays when going out into areas likely to be infested; remember to put on sunscreen first. I talked to a man to bring me some lemon grass from country; to plant and to make tea.

Whatever officials are saying nothing is as effective as self-protection. Don’t wait for fogging, or garbage cleanup days. Keep your own immediate surroundings clear.