The region’s capacity to test for the Zika virus is being enhanced with support from the University of the West Indies (UWI).
Chairman of the UWI Regional Task Force on Zika Professor Clive Landis told a media conference at the Cave Hill Campus yesterday that the laboratories on the three campuses – Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago – would join the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in conducting confirmatory testing.
“The laboratories of the universities are now going to come together to boost the overall capacity of the whole Caribbean, functioning almost like satellites [which] would then feed into the Caribbean laboratory network and reporting their surveillance figures to CARPHA,” Professor Landis said during the news conference, held to outline the mandate and work of the task force.
He noted that although the group was currently focusing on the Zika virus it would however embrace all the expertise within the regional university community and internationally to research and test all other emerging viruses or diseases which threaten the region.
“Instead of just having a Zika task force, next year when we have Mayora virus coming through, then [you have] a Mayora virus task force, that’s not the way to go,” he told Barbados TODAY on the sidelines.
“The WHO [World Health Organization] after the Ebola outbreak and some of the post mortems on some of the mistakes made said, ‘look, we need to strengthen preparedness more generally for what is called, all hazard preparedness’. And the university is very well placed with training programmes, continued public education, some of its expertise and strategic planning in order to be able to assist with preparing more generally for outbreak preparedness,” the university professor added.
He also explained that the unit was paying special attention now to Zika because, unlike the other mosquito-borne infections, it had much wider and uncertain implications.
“The complications with microcephaly and wider foetal abnormalities is truly worrying. I think this is what has motivated the WHO to announce a public health emergency of international concern. The WHO did no such thing for chikungunya. Chikungunya did not have those various serious syncope manifestations.”
He said while Chikungunya would have had a greater economic impact because of the number of productive days lost to the illness, Zika would more likely have a greater clinical impact.
Another member of the team, Professor Winston Moore, an acclaimed economist with expertise in environmental impact assessments on Caribbean economies, sought to drive home the point that Zika was a serious virus of special significance. “The economic impact of Zika is also another area that is a little bit uncertain. For Chikungunya, we know the health implications; we know how long someone is going to be away from work. When you are speaking about the impact of neurological diseases on children and also on adults, it is something that you really can’t quantify because those individuals would need to be cared for, for the rest of their lives. That’s a tremendous burden, economic and financial burden,” said Moore.
“So Zika poses a very significant threat because there is really not a lot of good research on the issue. That is why we needed this regional task force. We need to get the research, we need to understand the potential effects of the Zika virus on the Caribbean.”
He said this project would have significant benefits in the future when it addresses other infectious diseases that present a risk to the Caribbean.