Multiple agencies and businesses within the U.S. Virgin Islands are ramping up their efforts to stop the spread of the Zika virus, which the World Health Organization’s on Monday declared a global health emergency.
Though the territory has only had one confirmed case so far, the Centers for Disease Control and WHO’s concern over the rapid spread of the virus has inspired a call to action.
According to territorial epidemiologist Esther Ellis, there haven’t been any more positive test results from the 14 samples sent last week from the three islands to the CDC, but there have been some negative ones.
Samples that test positive require an additional confirmatory test, which can take an extra week to complete. The DOH expects those results in the coming days.
“The WHO public health emergency will also promote enhanced activities around the world for surveillance in the affected jurisdictions. The DOH will continue to implement prevention efforts and will step up those efforts as the data dictate. At this time, prevention is key,” Ellis said.
In a statement released yesterday, the WHO said there should be no travel restrictions to places with confirmed cases of Zika, but the CDC has issued a travel advisory for the territory.
The Virgin Islands have joined the list of destinations that airlines are issuing refunds for, a policy that primarily parties with women who are pregnant or trying to conceive are expected to use.
Since Zika was confirmed in the territory a little more than a week ago, the V.I. Department of Tourism has acknowledged that travel cancellations have been made as a result of the CDC travel advisory.
Deputy Health Commissioner Kimberly Jones said the territory is more prepared then it’s been for past mosquito-borne illness outbreaks.
“The ground work and plan of attack have already been developed and tested with both dengue and Chikungunya. The fact that the same mosquito is the carrier of Zika grants us the knowledge of habits and known breeding areas of the mosquito. In that sense we are more prepared,” Jones said.
But, Jones cautioned that the Zika virus is different than past disease outbreaks, especially since it could have long-term developmental issues for newborns. For that reason, she said the territory can’t take the same approach as before.
Here’s a look at the measures being taken to prevent the spread of the virus in the territory:
– Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp has directed the assembly of a multi-agency team led by the DOH. This team will identify and allocate resources to respond to the Zika virus. A preliminary action plan was established last week with help from Health Commissioner nominee Dr. Michelle Davis, epidemiologist and Regional Health Administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
– As a part of government’s response, enforcement officers are being deployed to neighborhoods to help with mosquito eradication and to educate the public about how to eliminate potential mosquito-breeding reservoirs. For stagnant reservoirs that can’t be addressed by an individual, such as an abandoned pool, people can contact the DOH’s Environmental Health Division for assistance.
– The DOH is taking blood samples from all symptomatic patients who seek medical care. The department is working closely with the CDC for testing those samples and for receipt of technical assistance.
– The DOH will continue to educate the community on prevention methods they can utilize, for example, use of repellent and mosquito nets, wearing long sleeved shirts and pants for protection and treatment of clothes and nets with permethrin, a chemical that’s commonly used in insect repellents. This information will be shared at schools, workplaces and public events.
– The DOH is working with the DOT to educate tourists about the threat of the virus. Information has been distributed to DOT, which is sharing information with hoteliers and the Port Authority. Hotels are urged to make insect repellent available to guests.
– The DOH has distributed more than 3,000 mosquito nets, targeting pregnant women who are thought to be at greatest risk from exposure to Zika. Last week the Queen Louise Home for Children on St. Croix was given 25 mosquito nets for newborn and children’s beds at the orphanage.
– The DOH is training local heath care providers to recognize suspected cases. Training has also been conducted with emergency room staff at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas and the Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix to help medical professionals recognize suspected cases.
– The West Indian Company Ltd. is taking all environmental precautions as recommended in the Tourism Department’s “Zika Guidelines for Travelers and Hotel Partners.” WICO is identifying and treating all locations on its property where there is standing water or moisture, including cisterns, trash disposal areas, trash compactors and bin sites.