Cayman 27’s look back at 2016 continues with a story that came virtually out of nowhere to dominate headlines for much of the year: the Zika virus.
The disease first appeared in the Caribbean days into the new year, and by July, the first imported cases appeared here on our shores.
In February, months before Zika made landfall, the premier and a panel of Public Health and MRCU officials held a press conference, outlining what facts were known about the virus at the time, and the country’s plan to fight it.
Zika’s links to birth defects like microcephaly separated the disease from others they had fought in the past, and added another layer of anxiety to the island’s pregnant population.
Meanwhile, the MRCU’s strategy to fight the mosquito that carries the disease using genetically modified mosquitoes faced strong resistance, and ultimately had to be settled in a courtroom.
As the zika virus marched its way through South America, Central America, and into the Caribbean in the early days of 2016, Premier Alden McLaughlin made it known that the country was ready to go toe-to-toe against the disease.
“We were well prepared in combating dengue and chikungunya and we are now confident that we will have control of Zika if it reaches our shores,” he said at a press conference in February.
Before Zika’s eventual arrival in July, the MRCU ramped up its efforts to control a familiar foe; the aedis aegypti mosquito.
“It’s the same mosquito, it’s a different virus. We are good at controlling the mosquito, I believe we are in a very good position to minimise the spread of this virus,” said MRCU Assistant Director Alan Wheeler in February.
In May, government upped the ante in its long-term mosquito control strategy, introducing a controversial but not unprecedented strategy to introduce British biotech company Oxitec’s so-called “friendly” aedis aegypti in a 300-acre trial area in West Bay.
Here’s how it works: the GMO males mate with wild females, and the resulting offspring die, reducing the population by 90% or more.
On July 5th, public health confirmed the island’s first cases of imported Zika. Two weeks later, a judge pumped the brakes on the initial release of 75,000 GMO mosquitoes after a legal challenge led by West Bayer Dwene Ebanks. Eventually the challenge was rejected by Justice Ingrid Mangatal, and by the end of the month, West Bay was abuzz with genetically modified mosquitoes.
With the first occurrence of local Zika transmission in August, the Zika spotlight shifted from GMO’s to expectant mothers. To assuage the concerns of mums-to-be, the MRCU began offering local thermal fogging treatments around expectant mothers’ homes and workplaces. Demand was so great at the apex of the Zika outbreak that MRCU Director Dr. William Petrie told Cayman 27 his crews were working around the clock to satisfy demand for this service.
By September, there were more than 20 confirmed cases in Cayman. The MRCU and Public Health officials kicked off a series of Zika town hall meetings, where it was revealed a pregnant woman had become infected.
These public outreach efforts helped keep the public up to date and informed as the Zika numbers grew.
By the end of October, Public Health officials were lauding a decrease in persons reporting the symptoms of Zika. In its final Zika update of the year, issued in late November, Public Health officials had tallied 30 lab-confirmed cases of Zika out of more than 200 cases investigated.
Two pregnant women were among the infected.