Four months ago, Saint Lucia recorded its first case of chikungunya. Until then, many here had never heard of the disease—and couldn’t have cared less. Most of us still incorrectly pronounce its name.
As usual the health ministry, as communicated by its official mouthpiece, chief epidemiologist Nahum Jn Baptiste, saw no cause for alarm. He said certain tests were being carried out in Trinidad.
Chikungunya is a virus transmitted by the aedes aegypti mosquito, the same vector of dengue fever mosquitoes. The most common symptoms are fever and joint pain. Other symptoms may include headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash, say the health experts. Infected individuals present symptoms three to seven days following exposure.
Outbreaks have occurred in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In late 2013, the virus was found for the first time in the Americas, on islands in the Caribbean. The virus has been on the increase in the French Caribbean from 2013.
To date the Caribbean Public Health Agency has confirmed 500 cases of chikungunya in the region, with the number of cases in Saint Lucia spiking to twenty by May. Local health officials point out that these cases are not truly reflective of reality. Everyone is at risk, they say, since there is no vaccine and no cure for chikungunya.
Nahum Jn Baptiste and his colleagues, while still insisting there’s no need for panic, are urging the public to do everything possible to eradicate the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. Perplexingly, Jn Baptiste now adds that cases may be under-reported.
“What you find happening is that several persons may be staying home and taking local remedies and bush medicines instead of going to the doctor,” he reasoned
On the other hand, the notoriously straight-talking Saint Lucian pathologist and senator, Dr. Stephen King, says we do indeed have an epidemic on our hands.
“It is an epidemic in so much as you now having low productivity from persons reporting sick as well as the expense which will go into public healthcare to deal with this disease,” he told the STAR. “All of this at a time when our productivity is already so low.”
He adds that the onus is not just on government but on individuals taking responsibility for their surroundings and their communities to rid the environment of anything that would harbor the breeding of mosquitos or any vectors.
According to a report, recent field surveys in Saint Lucia, indicate mosquito levels on the island remain high, despite a decrease from 36 percent to 29 percent. The rate of mosquito prevalence in poor communities is high, where the lack of pipe-borne water, toilet facilities and other amenities already cause serious public health issues.
Dr. King considers our education and health systems have failed Saint Lucians the most.
“Universal healthcare, for instance, should have been implemented long ago. It can be done in phases. But consecutive governments look at the cost at implementing, not the long-term savings, and certainly not the improvement in productivity consistent with a healthier nation. If we put our house in order, where health is concerned, there is no reason why our women should die of things like cervical cancer.”
On the subject of Universal Health Care, this is what the Saint Lucia Labour Party put forward in its 2011 manifesto, ahead of the last general election: “When the Saint Lucia Labour Party forms the next government, it will deliver on its promise to provide Universal Health Care so that every citizen, regardless of income level, will have access to affordable, quality healthcare.
“Further, that an SLP government will finalize the publicly guaranteed package of health services, make provisions for the financing of these services, and encourage private health insurance providers, through incentives, to provide complementary Insurance coverage.”
Promises still waiting to be delivered.
Meanwhile medical doctor and MP for Anse La Raye Canaries, Dr. Desmond Long, has also confirmed we have an “epidemic” on our hands when it comes to chikungunya, but the SLP representative made no recommendations, political or medical, for handling the looming public health crisis. His constituency is possibly the island’s poorest and most deprived community.
So it’s no surprise that the first case of chikungunya in Saint Lucia was discovered in Anse la Raye.