Normally, we tend to be skeptical of government-run “town hall meetings” — but in the case of the Public Health Department’s upcoming series on the Zika virus, it may be just what the doctor ordered.
The first one begins tonight in George Town. Subsequent meetings will be held throughout Grand Cayman until Oct. 25.
We are pleased to see that the panel will feature physicians and healthcare practitioners, with an understandable emphasis on the area of pregnancy. It’s also good that the panel will include Mosquito Research and Control Unit Director Bill Petrie — who, along with his agency, should be commended for their continuing efforts to keep the public safe from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, dengue, chikungunya and other dangerous diseases.
The MRCU is Cayman’s first line of defense in the battle against Zika, and has been fighting the latest front in the ongoing mozzie war using time-tested techniques such as aerial bombing and truck spraying. The MRCU has also partnered with scientists from Oxitec on a novel approach, releasing sterile swarms of genetically altered Aedes aegypti males in the hopes of eliminating the health threat on a generational scale. Despite the MRCU’s best efforts, Zika has managed to gain a toehold in Grand Cayman, with 12 locally transmitted cases documented so far, plus seven imported cases.
Importantly, though, it hasn’t yet developed into a true “epidemic,” as it has in so many of our regional neighbors.
As we witnessed in the global panic over Ebola in late 2014, the current Zika scare has become not only an epidemiological event, but a spectacle of media and politics. In the United Sates, for example, Democrats and Republicans are alternately blocking efforts to provide US$1.1 billion in funding to combat Zika — not because they disagree substantially on the bill (they’re overwhelmingly in favor) — but because of partisan bickering over the involvement of Planned Parenthood … and by an extension of logic, abortion.
In contrast, the town hall meetings in Cayman should provide helpful forums for health and mosquito experts to dispense practical advice on how to prevent and treat Zika infections.
A caveat: If prospective attendees think they’re going to get all their questions about Zika answered, that’s probably not possible. The reason is nobody has all the answers about Zika, which was first discovered by scientists in Uganda in 1947, but was considered to be relatively innocuous until recent links were established between Zika and the severe birth defect of microcephaly and associated brain abnormalities.
Nevertheless, as The Washington Post reports, “Researchers don’t know what proportion of women infected during pregnancy pass the virus on to the fetus, and of those, what proportion get microcephaly.”
A troubling Zika mystery is why have there been so many Zika-related birth defects in Brazil (1,949 cases as of Sept. 22), while neighboring Colombia, also with widespread Zika, has so relatively few (40 cases)? Researchers to date have been unable to explain the disparity.
For now, it is useful to keep the threat of Zika in perspective, to listen to experts overseas and locally, and to employ common-sense protective measures: i.e., use insect repellent, wear pants and long-sleeve clothing, ensure that containers are free of standing water, etc.
It’s not the most cutting-edge advice, but, for now, it’s the best we can do.