Global Health, Public Health, Public health concern

Health communication in the time of Zika in Haiti

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.

A health worker fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighbourhood as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Soyapango, El Salvador

A health worker fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighbourhood as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Soyapango, El Salvador January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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Public health concern

Drug resistance: What can we do?

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Bucket of drugs sold on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

This article originally appeared on Woy Magazine

Throughout history, mankind has suffered from several devastating epidemics caused by pathogens (disease-causing microbes). Even the bible speaks of the occurrence of epidemics such as leprosy and tuberculosis, millennia ago. Among the deadliest known in history, the plague epidemic, from 1347 to 1351, killed half of the European population. Centuries later, the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 has claimed more lives than World War I. On the American continent, around the same period, the epidemic of polio in the United States has killed 6 000 persons. For many years, Haiti has been known for the spread of deadly microbial epidemics and is still currently fighting one of the highest rates of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS (despite the dropping prevalence) and malaria in the hemisphere.

However, the era of microbial epidemics has observed a halt since the development of antimicrobial drugs begun with the discovery of penicillin, an antibiotic, by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Nonetheless, in his Nobel lecture in 1945, he had to warn: “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Antimicrobial resistance is the fact by which, the pathogens become insensitive to the drugs used to kill them or to inhibit their growth. It is known as a natural phenomenon, but can as well be propelled by humans through overdose and improper use of drugs. In line with Fleming’s projection, antimicrobial resistance is an actual fact and a global health issue especially in our era of globalization and mass commercialization. As a result, in a near future, we may lack the most essential drugs to cure the simplest infections.

How is it today? In its 2014 report, the WHO has revealed that the Influenza A viruses (susceptible to cause the flu) are resistant to all available preventive drugs. Worldwide, 450,000 new cases of resistant tuberculosis have been reported.  And in Africa, resistance to a specific class of drug used in the treatment of AIDS has been observed since 2009. Concerning malaria, several countries on different continents experience some level of resistance to chloroquine (Main drug used in the treatment).

Imagine a world where anybody can die of a single skin cut, where more children under 5 years old die of pneumonia. Imagine a country like Haiti in such a world, with no available drugs to treat malaria and AIDS. Imagine a world where tuberculosis is an incurable disease, where doctors can’t practice surgery -because most of the time, there’s no surgery without antibiotics- and where children die of mother-to-child infections. To avoid such catastrophe, key attitudes are recommended in the face of this new global epidemic of resistance to antimicrobial drugs. Let’s lay down a non exhaustive list of four realistic and reliable precautions we can adopt in Haiti.

Encourage consumption of local foods

Most of the meat consumed in Haiti is imported from the Dominican Republic and the United States. In larger economies, antibiotics are used in animals, despite the advice of the WHO to cease such practices (Press Release WHO/39. September 11, 2001). When a person ingests meat containing antibiotics, they also consume the drug. This improper use of antibiotics contributes to bacterial resistance in humans. As a result, these drugs will lose their ability to produce the desired effect in sick people. The lack of antibiotics is one of the advantages of purchasing local Haitian agriculture. It is, therefore, recommended to consume local foods in order to decrease the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Fight self-medication

Concerned state authorities should take responsibility by enforcing the article 19 of the August 10th, 1955 law forbidding the sale of antibiotics without medical prescriptions. According to a study I conducted in March 2015 at the outpatient clinic of the General Hospital of Port-au-prince, almost half of the patients (45.4% of them) buy their antibiotics without any medical prescription from street vendors tubs, public transport buses and sometimes pharmacies. While we wait for a more modern law on the pharmaceutical sector in Haiti, the one cited above should absolutely be enforced in the meantime.

Typical meds vendor in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Typical meds vendor in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Practice better medical care

From the doctors, it is required to decrease the careless use of antibiotics and other microbial drugs. The choice of the most accurate drug to treat a specific infection, the appropriate dosage and duration, should be done with the utmost care. In all circumstances, following a well-conducted physical exam, the clinical judgement of doctors need to be accurate. It is best, however, to objectify an ongoing infection before initiating a therapy even if in most of the cases, the medical practice is challenged by the inability of the patients to pay for basic exams. No matter the limitations, it is the doctor’s duty to make the best decisions for their patients and for society as a whole, based on their judgement and scientific evidence.

Increase awareness and health literacy

As it is often said, prevention is better than any cure. It is in the best interest of the general population to increase their awareness of the situation and their health literacy. Unfortunately, in Haiti, information and health education campaigns are only held in times of severe outbreaks, and are transmitted in a language that excludes the majority of the population and fails to take advantage of the best communication channels. Basic health knowledge should to be taught throughout people’s lifetimes, beginning in elementary schools.  IntegrAction, a non-profit organization I co-founded, is totally engaged in this fight for effective health literacy for the Haitian population.

Awareness and a culture-oriented health literacy coupled with the best medical care can make a profound difference, in regard to this alarming situation. The state and local authorities should join their hands to enforce the existing law and encourage the consumption of local foods. With enough political will and global awareness, it is possible to get around the dramatic fate. One behavioral change at a time, let us, Haitians, unite for this cause!

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