Thousands of confirmed cases, millions more at risk from the Zika virus, and now the Cayman Islands government announces a two-part plan to fight this new global health emergency.
The plan deals with prevention of the mosquito-borne illness, which is linked to fetal brain damage, and dealing with the virus once it appears on our islands.
“We were well prepared in combatting dengue and chikungunya, and we are now confident that we will have control of zika if it reaches our shores,” said Premier Alden McLaughlin at a press conference Tuesday afternoon (2 February). “I want to emphasise that the zika virus is not yet in Cayman, but given our proximity to Jamaica and Central America, in all likelihood the virus will find its way here in the coming months.”
While Mr. McLaughlin stressed the country is still Zika-free for the time being, he said the country is ready to handle the threat. The press conference brought the premier together along with top officials in public health and mosquito control to outline the two-phased strategy to combat the disease, both before and after it arrives in Cayman.
The premier told Cayman 27 the country is no stranger to mosquito-borne illness, having fought both dengue fever and chikungunya in recent years.
Public health officials are confident they are ready for whatever the disease brings with it.
“We have all the adequate supplies and facilities to treat these conditions if we have any of these complications, and basically, we will stress the importance, the main message is to control the vector, control the mosquito,” said Dr. Samuel Williams, the acting medical officer of health.
“We do have the expertise, we have the necessary equipment and trained staff; that’s a very key point,” said Dr. Bill Petrie, MRCU Director. “We also have a commitment from the government, from the premier that we will be provided with the resources that we need.”
The official consensus among public health and mosquito control officials is this; controlling the vector, in this case, the Aedis Aegypti mosquito, is key to controlling the spread of the zika virus.
The MRCU told Cayman 27 it’s ready to wage war on the mosquito, taking the fight against the spread of zika directly to the pests’ breeding grounds in and around our homes. What are the tools in the MRCU arsenal, and how does the unit plan to fight zika’s spread? Cayman 27’s Joe Avary put these questions to MRCU Assistant Director Dr. Alan Wheeler.
By air, by land, and in our backyards, the MRCU is staging a pre-emptive attack on the aedis aegypti mosquito, the vector for zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.
“It’s fairly easy to identify, it’s black and white stripes, if you get bitten by it, you know it’s breeding somewhere close, it’s going to be breeding in buckets, anything that can hold clean water,” said Dr. Wheeler, who told Cayman 27 the unit is ready to go toe-to-toe against the aedis aegypti, a familiar opponent.
“It’s the same mosquito, it’s a different virus,” explained Dr. Wheeler. “We are good at controlling the mosquito. I believe we are in a very good position to minimize the speared of this virus.”
The MRCU has already sprung into action with phase one of its zika preparations. The unit will be taking on the adult mosquito, conducting aerial operations twice weekly in addition to hyper-localised truck fogging and thermal fogging operations in targeted areas, based on where the aedis aegypti mosquitos are known to congregate.
“Right now, we don’t want to be spraying chemical about without the need to spray chemicals. We’re carrying out control operations, were doing it in the areas where we know the mosquito exists, and we will be ramping up our control operations once we find indication that this virus is circulating on the island,” said Dr. Wheeler.
He said very soon the MRCU will add another weapon, one that may detect zika in mosquitoes before it appears in humans.
“We’re trying to put in place a system now that will allow us to detect the virus in the mosquito before we find it in the human population. That will allow is to coordinate our control operations and hopefully provide better effective control against this virus,” said Dr. Wheeler.
He told Cayman 27 anyone can be an ally in the fight by helping to eliminate the mosquito’s breeding grounds.
“This mosquito likes clean water,” he explained. “It breeds in domestic containers such as buckets, discarded children’s toys, tires and if you go around your own yard and check for these and empty the water out, that’s the best way of controlling this mosquito that we can recommend.”
The MRCU said once the virus appears on-island, as it believes will eventually, phase two efforts against the aedis aegypti will intensify.
The unit told Cayman 27 it will remain flexible in its approach to the mosquito. As confident as the MRCU is with its track record against the aedis aegypti mosquito, zika is a new threat to the islands, and with it come many unknowns.