Dear citizens of the OECS,
With increasing frequency in recent times, we have been faced with threats from infectious diseases originating from outside our region. Ever since the threat of Ebola, the OECS Ministers of Health have met as a council with their advisors and our principal health partners PAHO (the Pan American Health Organization) and CARPHA (the Caribbean Public Health Agency), to plan and protect against that dreaded possibility.
All member states, including Martinique, worked together to ensure that we had as effective a blanket of protection as possible, and that in the event that a case was to present itself in any of the OECS chain of islands, we could contain and respond adequately. Today, we are again confronted with a potential threat that we do not intend to take lightly.
At a meeting held on 26 January 2016, the OECS Ministers of Health considered the threat to the health and economic wellbeing of our citizens posed by the Zika virus disease in the region of the Americas. As many of you would know, Zika is a viral illness similar in presentation to Dengue Fever and Chikungunya which are all transmitted by the Aedes species of mosquito.
Zika is a strange disease – whereas 4 out of every 5 cases may not show symptoms, there have been cases of children born with abnormally small heads and small brains, as well as symptoms such as muscle weakness and paralysis emerging during the Zika outbreak in countries such as Brazil, leading to concerns regarding a possible association among these conditions. Globalization of today’s world means that everyone is closely connected and in the OECS, the freedom of movement of people makes it easier for our citizens to move around freely.
This is why the World Health Organization has declared the Zika outbreak to be “a public health emergency of international concern.” While not all countries of the OECS have presented cases of the disease, the US Centers for the Control of Diseases has defined the risk as covering Latin American and the Caribbean because of the speed with which the outbreak could spread.
Acknowledging the OECS to be a single health and economic space and considering the impact of concerns over a possible Zika outbreak, the OECS Ministers of Health have agreed to a harmonized approach involving leadership at the highest level, engagement at the widest community level, coupled with partnership from national, regional and international agencies to address this challenge.
Although to date there have been no confirmed cases of Zika in the majority of OECS Member States, proactive measures are currently being implemented and stronger coordination of effort will be seen in the coming weeks.
These measures include:
• Leadership at the Ministerial and Parliamentary levels to mobilize communities in country-wide campaigns to eradicate mosquito breeding sites, and to destroy the existing adult population
• Partnerships with stakeholders, including the tourism industry, to promote measures to prevent all mosquito borne illnesses among residents and visitors alike
• Robust vector and disease surveillance, including increased premises inspection, mosquito eradication and control measures, especially in areas of high population density.
The OECS-wide campaign will have four elements to it:
1. Monitoring and surveillance – a close alliance of national, regional and international public health agencies to keep close tabs on the disease, and using this intelligence to attempt to keep ahead of the disease
2. Eradication and protection actions – by national authorities, communities, and workplaces aimed at the most rapid elimination of the mosquito by a variety of measures including fogging, removal of potential breeding sites, use of mosquito nets and skin protection sprays and so on
3. Care and case management – putting in place arrangements in the public health service to manage any cases that may present themselves
4. A widespread public education campaign to inform and educate citizens on the status of the threat and the measures that we can and should take at the personal and community levels.
Several member states have already started to implement some of these measures, and because the efforts will be coordinated collectively, we will ensure that best practices in each national space are adopted in all of the others. The OECS Council of Ministers will be actively overseeing the campaign and we will involve the private sector (especially the tourism industry), the trade unions, churches and other civic bodies in what MUST be a national effort.
At the regional level, the air and sea ports and main means of sea and air transportation will be asked to play a key role in preventing vector transmission. The OECS Pharmaceutical Procurement Service will be undertaking central purchasing of mosquito control related commodities and services, such as medicated mosquito nets, repellants, foggers etc., to ensure that we are able to obtain sufficient quantities at the best prices.
The Communications Unit of the OECS will be working closely with the Government Information Services of Member States and the media in the OECS to provide updates and explanations of what needs to be done and how. Public awareness is the most important weapon in this battle because we can only successfully defeat the threat of this disease if all citizens.