When Zika Arrives in The Caribbean, What Then?

By Dr. Martin Forde, Sc.D., R.Eng

Firstly, has the mosquito-transmitted virus named Zika arrived in the Caribbean as yet? Last week, a report coming out of the Dominican Republic seemed to indicate that Zika had claimed its first victim in the form of a 12-year old girl. This report, however, is now been questioned and contested by the health authorities in that country.

Although having the species of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, that is capable of spreading Zika present in their country, Ministry of Health officials in the Dominican Republic claim that the sick girl’s mother mistakenly attributed the cause of her child’s sickness to the Zika virus. This couldn’t be the case, they argued, since the child had not traveled to a place where the Zika virus was prevalent, and secondly the girl never had the symptoms associated with a Zika virus infection.

Determining whether this 12-year old girl was made sick by Zika is impossible to state definitely since no laboratory test were conducted. So whether or not this girl can be awarded the dubious distinction of being the first Caribbean person to be infected by the Zika virus will have to await the presentation of more conclusive evidence.

This brings us to a very important point: How does one determine if he or she has been infected by the Zika virus? As suggested above, the only conclusive way to do so is to run the appropriate laboratory tests. This, in turn, leads to the next obvious question: Do laboratories here in Grenada have the ability to test for the presence of this virus? The answer to that question is sadly, No.

The fact that we are locally unable to test for the Zika virus does not mean, however, that no one will ever get infected by this virus. To believe such would be the equivalent of ‘sticking one’s head in the sand’ and falsely believing that if I don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist.

But the Zika virus does exist and it has now entered our neck of the world. Each week, more and more reports are coming out of our Southern American neighbors, in particular Brazil, which show that this mosquito-borne virus has now established itself in the Western hemisphere and is steadily moving into other neighboring countries. It is thus only a matter of time before Zika will make its ‘official’ entry into one of our beautiful Caribbean islands and then spread throughout the rest.

Most of us will recall that less than two years ago, the word ‘Chikungunya’ meant absolutely nothing to us. Now, not only can almost everyone in the Caribbean correctly spell and pronounce this foreign-sounding word, we can add in excruciatingly painful details just what this virus did to us personally and for some of us, is still doing! The 2014 Chikungunya epidemic outbreak in the Caribbean taught all of us a very powerful lesson: just because a particular disease had never been seen in our region of the world before does not mean that one day this could suddenly change.

And so it is, and will be, with Zika. The only question that is worth asking is when will Zika hit the Caribbean, not if.

It is extremely difficult, if nigh impossible, to establish protocols that can detect and prevent the entry of every single Zika infected person or mosquito from entering one’s country. That being the case, what is then needed is a robust surveillance system that proactively keeps its eyes open for persons who become ill and display the symptoms similar to those infected with the Zika virus and then have the resources available to do rapid testing to confirm infection status.

Secondly, since Zika is a mosquito-borne infection, one does not have to wait for Zika to arrive to start implementing mosquito control strategies. Keeping one’s surrounding as clean as possible and eliminating all possible mosquito breeding places will ensure that even if someone with Zika comes into our country, there will be no mosquito around to bite this person, get infected, and then infect one of us when it bites us for its next blood meal.

Prevention has always being touted as being much better than taking curative actions. As proof of the truthfulness of this statement, ask anyone who experienced Chikungunya that if they were told that preventing themselves from getting mosquito bites would have prevented them from getting Chikungunya if they would not have wished that they could have gone back in time to prevent that fateful bite and you will then see the value of prevention on a personal level.

So, Zika will come, sooner or later, to the Caribbean. How well we respond and what actions we take now will determine to a great extent whether we personally become one of its victims.

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