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Globalization and the spread of disease

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Tue Feb 03, 2015

When its not Ebola, it’s Chikungunya, Dengue, Malaria or the Measles.

Every Monday morning, we get news that the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines are at risk for yet another disease, which once upon a time seemed remote and unlikely.{{more}}

What we are experiencing now, sadly will be the norm for the foreseeable future — a direct result of globalization.

Just as we can order the latest gadgets online and have them delivered to our doorsteps within days, so too, an outbreak of a disease in a far flung country can directly affect us within hours.

Globalization affects trade, globalization affects our economy, globalization means cultural penetration and now, unfortunately, globalization affects our health.

Last week, a rumour was lit, and quickly spread like wildfire over social media that a Nigerian woman had been isolated at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital on January 26, presenting with the symptoms of Ebola. Medical officials quickly ruled out the disease after examining and questioning the patient. The culprit instead was later confirmed by the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to be Malaria. Malaria is not endemic to St Vincent and the Grenadines, but health officials say this is not the first time an imported case of Malaria has been identified here.

Last year, the Chikungunya virus wreaked havoc on our vulnerable population when it was introduced to the country by someone who is believed to have travelled to Bequia from another Caribbean island. Our country had zero immunity to the virus, and so when the rainy season set in, this debilitating disease spread easily and widely through the islands, causing tremendous suffering and loss of productivity.

CARPHA recently issued a statement reminding the public that the 2015 flu season is approaching. In that release, executive director, CARPHA, Dr C James Hospedales, noted that the primary form of influenza transmission is through interpersonal contact, and that given elevated flu activity in the United States, combined with the high travel season to the Caribbean, it is important that persons take the necessary steps now, to protect themselves and their loved ones from the flu.

A few years ago, the onset of the influenza season in the United States had very little effect on us here in the Caribbean. Today, that is not the case.

Additionally, the United States itself is also now dealing with an outbreak of measles which it had declared had been eliminated from that country in 2000. This highly contagious disease can be spread from four days before a rash appears to four days afterward. It is so contagious, in fact, the CDC says 90 per cent of people who are not immune and are close to someone with measles will also become infected.

So, what do we do? We cannot, nor do we want to, cut ourselves off from the rest of the world by closing our borders; so, the only option left to us is to learn as much as we can about these threats and how to reduce our risk.

The key to containing or keeping potentially dangerous, contagious diseases at bay is through education and sensitization. The more a person knows, the more likely the person to modify his or her behaviour so as to reduce risk.

Whilst the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment is doing its part in educating the public about diseases such as Ebola, Malaria, Dengue Fever, Chikungunya and Influenza, each of us must also take responsibility for our own learning. There is an abundance of information available from the Ministry itself, our local doctors/clinics and – of course – the Internet.

To keep these diseases from wreaking havoc in SVG and the region, we must tackle the issues head on. Accurate information trumps irrational fear every time.

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