Almost all communities in Saint Lucia have been affected by the vector-borne disease chikungunya, according to Surveillance Officer within the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health, Dr. Michelle Francois.
Though not stating the specific number of individuals who are confirmed to have contracted the virus in St. Lucia, Francois said there are many more cases on the ground than those that have reached the hospitals.
She said the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has mandated the ministry to only test persons presenting chikungunya symptoms who have been hospitalised, pregnant and or very sick.
“What we normally rely on is the trends of undifferentiated fever – that is, persons who present with just fever. We have seen these increasing throughout the island. So although we are not testing everyone …the confirmed numbers that we are seeing will always be less than what is on the ground,” she said.
Francois said the ministry anticipated the spike in the spread of chikungunya simply because the local population does not have immunity to the virus.
“So the mere fact that the public did not have immunity we did expect the numbers to rise as more and more people get exposed to the virus and with our high indices of mosquitos,” she said.
According to her, unlike dengue, chikungunya can only be contracted by an individual once, since it confirms lifelong immunity.
Francois said the ministry had been trying to keep the spread under control through various measures. There have been public awareness programmes, which include school and community outreach, and others avenues.
Moreover, Francois said that though there are signs of progress with regard to the public’s receptiveness to fighting the disease, there is still room for improvement.
“We have seen signs [but] progress has been a bit slow I would admit,” she said.
A number of persons have been coming forward to request that the ministry conduct training sessions at local workplaces. Some communities have also reached out for help in organising clean-up programmes, while others are very receptive about finding out how to control mosquito population.
In spite of all this, the surveillance officer said that personal responsibility is key to fighting chikungunya.
“We would like the public to know that it really begins with the individual. We can only maintain the community outreach and the clean-up campaigns for only so long but if each individual plays their part… there really would be no need for us to move masses in that manner. So it all begins with the individual and knowing that it is your responsibility to protect yourself and family,” she said.
Francois is concerned that with the onset of the hurricane season there will be an increase in the mosquito population which will in turn lead to a rise in vector-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and even leptospirosis.
This week is being observed as Vector Week for which a number of activities have been already convened and planned.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported recently that there are about 165,990 suspected cases of chikungunya in the Caribbean.
The organisation’s June 2014 report noted that the Dominican Republic had a total of 77,320 suspected cases followed by Guadeloupe with 35,000 and Martinique with 35,000.
Chikungunya is spread by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito which also spreads dengue fever – a disease with similar symptoms.
People suffering with chikungunya will mainly feel chronic pain in the joints, and although it will not require being admitted to a hospital, there will be prolonged pain or swelling in the joints.
Symptoms of chikungunya appear between four to seven days after the bite of an infected mosquito. The majority of clinical signs and symptoms last three to 10 days, but joint pain may persist longer. Severe cases requiring hospitalisation are rare.