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Volunteers going to war on Zika

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The Ministry of Health’s plan to train 500 young Public Health Volunteers to work as foot soldiers in the war against Zika is a commendable initiative that should be supported.

When the Minister announced the programme earlier this week, it brought to mind a similar programme in the United States, which is the initiative of present Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.Called the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC), the programme is a national collaborative effort to put America’s youth and returning veterans to work, protecting, restoring and enhancing America’s public lands.{{more}}

There is justifiable concern both here in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) and the rest of the region about the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Traditionally, our Ministry of Health has dealt with the threat posed by mosquitoes by carrying out fogging exercises; having public health officials visit properties looking for breeding sites; and through public education programmes that stress the need to keep our surroundings clean. These efforts have had some success, but from the number of people who contracted Chikungunya and dozens now falling victim to Zika, there is much room for improvement.

So, the idea to engage large numbers of our young people in the important work of mosquito eradication in order to concentrate the existing efforts of the Ministry of Health is a good one.

Already health authorities locally have been able to identify over 40 confirmed cases of Zika infection, two of these being pregnant women and are openly worried about a possible outbreak and the challenges it would pose for our health system.

Preventative measures to combat the virus is therefore the route we ought to take.

One obvious place to start must be the state of our environment. This is especially relevant to residential areas and urban centres, but encompasses our entire country. The condition of our drains, overhanging foliage and underbrush, which facilitate mosquito breeding, must be given priority by our volunteers.

The politics in our country does not always conform with such a focus, it being more politically expedient to focus on the limitations of our health system and its vulnerability to a Zika outbreak on a large scale, rather than what we can do by way of prevention.

Traditionally, our national clean-up has not necessarily been health-related. It has focused rather on providing needy, and willing-to-work persons, with some short-term income to deal with expenses for the new school year and at Christmas time.

But we are in a new situation where the possible threat is concerned. New approaches must be employed. It must be cheaper to find funds for a physical clean-up than for having to deal with a Zika outbreak.

We are not sure if there is a relationship between the Ministry of Health’s volunteer corps and the usual back-to-school clean-up crew, but if not, some collaboration can be crafted, as the goals of both groups are similar.

We must, however, ensure that this is not a one-off shot. It must be accompanied by a public education, community-driven programme designed to sustain the effort and to keep our environment healthy and communities clean.

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