The day was coming to its end as I was dealing with annoying paperwork at an outpatient clinic in the area of Delmas, in Port-au-Prince. The attending nurse sharply knocked at the door and introduced me to Zoune, a woman in her mid-forties. Calmed by the fan in motion, the ambient heat hardly bothered on this particular afternoon. Even though January hasn’t seen any rain yet, puddles and piles of rubbish in the streets form a sure cottage for mosquitoes. The tropical temperature also stimulates their reproduction. Zoune presented clinical features of the Zika disease, urging me to initiate a symptomatic treatment based on my judgment and order a few screening tests. Ever since the confirmation of Zika cases in Haiti by the Health Department (and even before) the public carefully monitor themselves for signs of the disease and inquire with their doctor. Of course some prefer to get themselves treated with simple non-pharmaceutical interventions.
The Zika virus disease is transmitted by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes, infected by the virus. Identified in humans for the first time in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania (Emerging point of Chikungunya virus which caused an outbreak in Haiti in 2014), it spreads especially in Africa and tropical countries. This non-fatal disease involves a febrile syndrome associated with lumbago (pain in the lower back), simulating Chikungunya or malaria which is endemic in Haiti. The emergence of Zika virus disease was foretold long before its introduction in Haiti. Climatic conditions punctuated by global warming as well as migration have positively contributed to its emergence.
Currently, one can refer to an epidemic in Haiti since Zika was simply non-existent across the territory. Even though it’s relatively simple to limit its spread- provided that hygiene and sanitation measures are met- difficulties particularly arise on this level. How to involve most of the people in this dynamic? Proactive communication is the first step in management of an epidemic. But between the limited resources and the outright flaws in the Haitian healthcare system, the public is far from being reassured. Communication weaknesses have already started to plague the good management of this outbreak, hence affecting trust even more. As a matter of fact, the confirmation notice of the presence of the disease in Haiti came late compared to expectations of the people who observed that it was rapidly gaining ground and awaited a word from the Ministry of Health.
According to my observations, the greatest fear of the public lies in the eventual complications of the Zika virus disease; mainly brain malformation in newborns and Guillain Barre Syndrome which causes paralysis of the body. Although scientific literature hasn’t confirmed any link between these complications and Zika yet, in some countries where Zika spreads, women are warned to delay pregnancy or to avoid areas affected by outbreaks. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have elaborated guidelines for the screening of pregnant women by gynecologists. Some see this as a unique opportunity to revive the debate on abortion in countries where a modern law is lacking. But at the time of writing, no campaign whatsoever is officially launched in Haiti thus, no warning regarding pregnancy or increased promotion of contraception services has been issued by the Health Department. The public is therefore facing the fear of this epidemic with the feeling of being on their own.
In order to foster behavioral changes necessary to protect lives, it’s important to know the perceptions and existing practices of the population. A never-ending conversation with the public allows effective management and is worth more than sparse and scant monologues in times of panic. During the Chikungunya outbreak in 2014, the organization I co-founded integrAction was delighted to share ideas and experiences with the socio-medical staff of the Haitian Red-Cross (many of whom were infected) in Cap-Haitian during a conference. This initiative helped the organization conceive groundbreaking campaign with appropriate health communication to raise awareness via social media on the disease and the means to cope with it.
On a broader scale, the current turn of public health history is an opportunity to consider reinforcing leadership capacities from the bottom to the top, while investing in research and improving the public’s health literacy. For most of the population, there’s more fear than harm as in the case of Zoune. So engaging the people through proactive communication followed by prompt action is one of the best ways to halt the spread of Zika and its potential consequences. As they express much disappointment, the Haitian people can only hope for less vulnerability. But if today’s duties are unceasingly postponed, the future, undoubtedly, can only be more grim.