Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chikungunya Fever Strikes Eastern Caribbean - Is Barbados Ready?

The news in the Sunday New York Times was disturbing to say the least. Evidently, a mosquito-borne disease once peculiar to equatorial Africa has now invaded the Eastern Caribbean. This needs to be addressed with emergency given how fragile all the island nations economies are. They certainly can't afford to lose any segment of their tourist earnings, for example.

Already, according to the Times ('Virus Advances Through East Caribbean'), the French side of St. Martin has been affected, as the virus has also spread to seven other locations, including: British Virgin Islands, Dominica, French Guiana, Guadeloupe and St. Bartholemy. Barbados hasn't been affected yet, but given its bond downgrade predicament, its Ministry of Health needs to keep keen vigilance.  All the island's health resources need to be ready in case this virus hits.

Already, 3,700 are confirmed to have contracted Chikungunya in the region, and "experts say conditions are ripe for the virus to spread to Central and South America."  The French side of St. Marten has 476 cases confirmed currently - the largest cluster of all the islands - while the Dutch side has 40 cases, according to the Caribbean Health Agency.

Experts  say it is "unlikely to affect the United States" - but again, 20 years ago "experts" said the same about West Nile Fever- and now it's everywhere.  The problem is that as global warming becomes more pronounced - especially if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved (adding some of the most concentrated carbon stores to the atmosphere) then it is inevitable more tropical diseases will spread to the U.S. including dengue fever, and possibly schistosomiasis.

Chikungunya (pronounced: chik-en-GUN-ya) was first identified in Tanzania in 1952. The name translates to "that which bends up" in the Kimakonde language peculiar to Mozambique.  According to the World Health Organization, some 2 million cases have been confirmed reported in India, Myanmar and Thailand. The Aedes aegypti mosquito carries the disease.

The symptoms include extreme muscle pain and fever with symptoms similar to those of dengue fever. For those who don't know, dengue is also known as "bone break" fever because the chronic pain is so bad it feels as if your bones have been broken and you can barely move them. The difference is that pain from Chikungunya, mainly in small joints, tends to last for months. The pain is so bad, especially in the wrists and ankles, that it is incapacitating. Workers, for example, are unable to even work a keyboard, far less punch in text messages on Twitter.

According to Ann N. Powers a specialist on vector-borne disease:

"They miss school and work. It's quite a drain on resources and the work force."

Exactly the last thing that Barbados, or any other island state needs!

 Dr. C. James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Health Agency based in Trinidad, has observed:

"It is an important development when a disease moves from one continent to another. Is it likely here to stay? That's the pattern we observe everywhere."

Let's hope that this disease doesn't lay waste to the people and resources of the region. And if it does enter Barbados, let's hope the authorities act with urgency.

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