Catastrophic is the word Dr James Hospedales, head of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, CARPHA, used to describe the potential impact of even a single case of Ebola in any Caribbean country.
“Thank God we haven’t had any cases in our region,” he said.
“But should that occur it would be catastrophic both from the point of view of our people’s health and the impact on our economy in the Caribbean. And that’s why it is so important for us to be in a state of readiness. The chances of a case turning up are low, but it is possible, increasingly so given what we have seen transpired in the United States.”
He spoke of the tragedy of Eric Duncan, a 42-year-old Liberian man who flew to Dallas from Monrovia in order to be reunited with his family but brought the Ebola virus with him. Despite the sophisticated equipment and systems in the United States, he died a few days ago. It was the first Ebola case in the United States and it immediately triggered a scare across the country.
However, Hospedales, who recently met with Caribbean health ministers, including Barbados’ John Boyce, during a meeting at the Pan American Health Organisation’s headquarters in Washington, had some reassuring words for the Caribbean.
“Should there be a case or even two on the region’s hands, I don’t believe we would have any widespread outbreak. The situation in the Caribbean is very different from West Africa. Although we are not as well-resourced as the United States, we are a much better educated public and we have a stronger health system,” he said.
Still, the relative ease with which the virus jumped from Liberia to Texas set people thinking about the dangers they too can face should they come into contact with bodily fluid of an Ebola victim who is from Senegal, Sierra Leone and Guinea where at least 4 000 have died in recent times after the epidemic took root. It is a concern Bajans share, given the international travel that has become a part of Barbadian life.
“We have seen how concerned people can become about Ebola and its potential spread,” said Hospedales, one of the region’s top health experts. “What occurred in the United States offers a poignant lesson.”
“We are a global village,” said Dr Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan.
“Germs have always travelled. The problem now is that they can travel with the speed of a jet plane.”
“There is no room for complacency in the Caribbean,” warned Hospedales.
“That’s why we have been urging the governments in our region, and identifying the steps they need to take so they can be fully ready to respond to something like this and what else may follow.”
What has unfolded in West Africa and the lone case in the United States raises the issue of regional health security.
“We must maintain and sustain the requirements and the capacities in the international health regulations” to which Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean are signatories.
“We at CARPHA don’t have sufficient resources if we are really called on to respond. We are stretched. The ministers understand that,” said Hospedales.
“The IHR regulations are in a binding treaty signed by countries everywhere.”
“Everyone was supposed to meet the core capacities by 2012. At that time Caricom member states asked for a two-year extension and a few months ago in Geneva in May they asked for a further two-year extension.”
Between 60-70 per cent of the regulations have been met but he was quick to say there was a “need in the Caribbean to give a bit extra to attain and sustain” the gaps once they have been closed. He singled out some of the things that must be done.
“The ports of entry in the Caribbean need further tightening up. Hospital and their controls should be tightened up. Then, there is the need for personal protective equipment” for those on the front line of the battle to prevent the disease from spreading, he said.
“There is a global shortage of personal protective equipment. The right screening procedures must be in place and some countries are working to have the isolation facilities in place. But no countries in the Caribbean have met the core capacities of IHR.”
Hospedales, who was in New York a few months ago to discuss tourism and health during the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s Tourism Week and discussed the links between health and the lucrative industry placed communications with the public and the necessary “political will” on the list of goals that must be reached.
“These are like an insurance policy if we are to have health security both for our people and for the tourism industry,” he added.
“I know the various countries are working hard on the various aspects, the isolation facilities, the education of health workers, making sure that protective equipment is available” and Barbados is among them.
PAHO is planning a workshop on risk communications to be held in Barbados “to help to strengthen our preparedness. Communication is an important part in being ready. There are legislative pieces that will take a bit longer but they are all pieces of the IHR.”