By Ada Michaels
Following the downgrade of the Zika virus from a world health emergency to “a dangerous mosquito-borne disease” by the World Health Organization in November 2016, local fears about the virus’ effects on the Cayman population have also decreased. But genetically modified mosquitoes may still be released in Cayman.
Initially classed as a serious global health threat by the WHO, the Zika virus was first confirmed to be locally transmitted in the Cayman Islands in August 2016.
But according to an update from the mosquito unit on the progress of the GM mosquitoes project, the department confirmed that it had released more than six million “friendly” males by the end of 2016.
“The project is on track and all indicators are positive,” MRCU said in a statement. The current programme is scheduled to last until April 2017 and MRCU said it “will remain our main focus for the time-being.”
However, the unit also revealed: “We are, nevertheless, discussing possible expansion of the project to the whole of Grand Cayman in the continued fight against mosquito-borne diseases, including Zika, dengue and chikungunya.”
Since the WHO first declared a state of emergency on Feb. 1, 2016, the Zika virus has spread to almost every country in the Western Hemisphere except Canada. Thousands of babies suffer deformities caused by the infection, and more are expected.
The most severe deformity is microcephaly, a tiny head with a severely underdeveloped brain; but fetuses have also been killed by the virus, and infected infants have been born blind, deaf, with clubbed feet and permanent limb rigidity. Scientists fear that many infected babies who appear normal now may suffer from intellectual deficits or mental illnesses later in their lives.
Following confirmation of local transmission, fears for the health of the public and the potential effects on Cayman’s tourism industry were at a high level.
In fact, in June 2016 – even before the virus reached our shores director of tourism Rosa Harris noted the effect of Zika fears on tourist travel to Cayman and the region in the Legislative Assembly. She said at the time that tourist numbers are down by 2.85 percent for the first three months of 2016. and that the perception of Zika “is a serious threat.” She explained that the perception and the threat of Zika, “has hurt our business tremendously.”
The Zika virus is mainly transmitted by infected female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes but also through sexual intercourse. People infected by Zika virus usually have mild symptoms that normally last for two to seven days and can include fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headaches.
To combat the spread of the virus locally, the Mosquito Research and Control Unit embarked on a controversial trial project to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the local population. Although a court challenge in early July temporarily halted the initial mosquito release, the project was under way by late July.
In response to questions from The Cayman Reporter, the Public Health Department advised last week that to date there have been 30 laboratory-confirmed cases of the Zika virus in the Cayman Islands.
The Public Health Department confirmed that: “Since January 2016 we have investigated 247 persons for mosquito-borne diseases. We remain with no chikungunya detected so far 2016, three dengue fevers and 30 laboratory confirmed Zika virus cases.”
Answering questions regarding the status of two pregnant women confirmed to have contracted the disease locally, the Public Health Department advised that: “As far as we know in regards to the two positive pregnant ladies; one decided to repatriate to her native country and the other is being followed up by her private doctor and nothing out of the ordinary has been reported to Public Health.”
Regionally, Zika fears have also plummeted. However, Jamaica remains on high-alert according to a December 2016 report in the Jamaica Gleaner.
Jamaica’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Winston De La Haye said the country’s health ministry has been receiving fewer reports of suspected Zika virus infections, which he said is indicative of the decreased fear that Jamaicans have of the mosquito-borne virus.
“For example, if we used to have 20 reported cases per week, we are now having a half of that. But we really want to underscore the importance of reducing the mosquito-breeding sites, which is really difficult in Jamaica. Jamaicans respond well to crises, but it’s hard to get them to continuously decrease breeding sites around their homes,” Mr. De La Haye noted.
But with 7,245 suspected cases of the Zika virus already recorded, he said that Jamaica still remained on heightened alert for the disease. As of December 2016, the latest statistics from the country’s health ministry show that it had received 742 notifications of pregnant women with the Zika virus but had only confirmed 77 cases.
Mr. De La Haye said that some of the pregnant women who tested positive for Zika have already given birth to babies who, so far, have shown no signs of the Zika virus or related microcephaly.
The Jamaican government has instituted a special clinic to monitor the development of those children born to Zika-infected mothers.
Dr De La Haye said, “Those who have given birth have all been referred to special clinics because we can’t just look at what is presented at birth as some of the issues may not be microcephaly, but they may be learning disorders that won’t present themselves until children start school, so a team of experts is monitoring these babies.”
The Jamaica Gleaner also reported that there have been 30 cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in Jamaica last year, but only four have been linked to the Zika virus.
However, despite the WHO downgrade of the Zika virus, the Pan American Health Organization reported in December 2016 that the virus spread rapidly throughout the Americas, including the Caribbean last year, after it was first detected in Brazil in 2015.
“By the close of this year, 48 countries and territories in the Americas had reported more than 532,000 suspected cases of Zika, including 175,063 confirmed cases. In addition, 22 countries and territories reported 2,439 cases of congenital syndrome associated with Zika. Five countries had reported sexually transmitted Zika cases,” PAHO said.
There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available. The virus is now known to circulate in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.