Guest Editorial : Another look at the Zika scare
While carnival and its attendant sideshows dominated people's attention last week and as carnival lovers salivated in anticipation of Carnival Monday and Tuesday, Dominicans could have been forgiven if a comment by the permanent secretary ministry of health Helen Royer regarding the Zika virus went unnoticed.
Royer warned that there was no doubt that the virus would reach Dominica "sooner rather than later" due to tourism and the presence here of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that transmits the disease.
And, how can we ignore this pesky little pest? Many of us are still haunted by the torture that Chikungunya wreaked upon us; dengue continues to loom over us, waiting to pounce like the angel of death; and now this. It's enough to force a collective cry of, "oh, no, not again!"
Ordinarily, Zika is nothing more than a mild irritation. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) the symptoms are a mild fever, skin rashes, and some people have conjunctivitis. In fact, four out of five people who contract Zika don't even know they have it, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, both the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have put the fear of God into people by associating the virus with microcephaly, a dreadful condition that reduces children's skull and shrinks their brains.
But the fact remains that scientists have yet to find a link between Zika and microcephaly. Up to now they have only been guessing because of a spike in the condition among babies in Brazil, which coincides with a rise in Zika cases there.
And the WHO itself, which declared Zika an international public health emergency last week, has said that much remains unclear, including the precise nature of any link.
While the old adage that it's better to be safe than sorry applies, couldn't the WHO and the CDC avoid much of the present hysteria by simply presenting the facts?
And what are the facts? It's been nearly 70 years since the Zika virus was first discovered, in 1947, in the Zika forest in Uganda – how much longer it's been around no one knows for sure.
From 1951 through to 1981 it has been present in a number of African and Asia countries and in 2007 an outbreak on the Micronesian island of Yap is reported to have affected 75 per cent of the population. Yet, throughout the decades, there have been no reported cases of microcephaly linked to Zika in any of these countries. Not a single case.
It must be noted too that Colombia has reported over 20,000 Zika cases, including 2,100 pregnant women, but no increases in microcephaly.
So why Brazil? Could there be another cause? Could it be that Zika is not to blame at all? Could it be Zika combined with other factors that are unique to Brazil? We believe the WHO has a responsibility to seek and provide answers based on science, not engage in speculation. There are people who present a strong case for a contrary position. They point to the release of genetically engineered Aedes mosquitoes in Brazil and an announcement in late 2014 by the Brazilian minister of health that a new TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis) vaccine would be mandatory for all expectant mothers starting in 2015.
Some point to the use of pesticides – Brazil is the largest user of pesticides in the world, according to the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (ABRASCO), including some that are banned in developed countries – while others point to the 25,000 cases of microcephaly in the United States every year, even though it has not had Zika.
Additionally, recent news agency reports state that of the 4,180 cases of microcephaly reported in Brazil since October, only 270 have so far been confirmed, and only six had been linked by the government to Zika. The report states that of the rest, 3,448 are still being investigated through a long process involving clinical research, laboratory testing and monitoring of the infants' development, and 462 were dismissed altogether.
In the meantime, travel advisories issued by the CDC are causing panic among travellers. The proof lies in a recent Google consumer survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by the travel risk management firm On Call International which found that 64 per cent of Americans, including men and women who are not pregnant, said they would cancel their travel to Zika-affected countries. Among female respondents the number was 69 per cent.
Caribbean countries are already beginning to feel the impact as some travellers cancel their planned holidays, even to countries with no cases of Zika. The cancellations are few right now, but things could get worse. It cannot be an easy decision, particularly for pregnant women or those planning to have children, and we understand why they would be worried. The thought of their children being born with misshaped heads and brain disorders is frightening. It is a horrifying thought.
But it does not have to be this way. The onus is now on the ministry of health here, along with the ministry of tourism to get the facts out there. The media have a responsibility also to investigate and report the facts, not just repeat what the official sources like the WHO and CDC tell us. And we are hoping that the ministry of health resists the temptation to advise women to delay pregnancy. Decisions like this only fan the flames of panic.
At the same time, we have a responsibility to destroy mosquito breeding grounds and to protect ourselves from mosquito bites. For, while we pay rapt attention to Zika, we must not forget Chikungunya, nor should we ever forget that dengue can kill.
-By Johnson JohnRose