Predicted ‘Bird Flu’ outbreak could overburden Jamaica’s health system
Jamaica’s already fragile public health system could be severely overburdened if there is an outbreak of the Avian Flu (Bird Flu), which some health experts predict could occur by next year.
Allan Wright, of the Department of Management Studies at the University of the West Indies, said that ‘the nature of the impact will depend on the severity of the pandemic.’ He was one of several persons speaking at a recently concluded Caribbean Community Pandemic Influenza Workshop, held in Kingston, Jamaica.
Wright told participants that an outbreak will result in excessive demand for health services which invariably will lead to the overcrowding of health institutions.
He said there is an anticipated 10 percent hospitalization rate among infected workers and that the hospitalization rate among the young, (0-14 years) and the elderly, (65+ years), which is about one million persons, who would be considered high risk cases, would also be very high.
According to Wright, the island’s hospitals have a combined bed capacity of 4,846, with just over 50 percent being occupied under normal circumstances.
“With 34 hospitals and 348 health centres spread across the country, with the highest concentration of facilities in the Kingston Metropolitan area, the critical issue is whether the sector has enough capacity to cope with the huge inflow of persons that will require care,” he added.
He said a study, which was conducted jointly by himself and Diaram Ramjee Singh of the UWI, estimates a 17 percent infection rate among the island’s work force, which means 189,000 members of the working labour force would become ill.
“If five percent of them require hospitalization within our public health care services, we will not have enough bed capacity within the system to accommodate those 9,000 persons,” he stated. Wright said the estimates will become larger if more members of the population are infected.
“Our resources will not be enough to accommodate these numbers even with the use of private facilities islandwide,” he revealed.
He said the governments in the region need to develop a disaster plan to help marshal additional resources, both locally and internationally, towards assisting in the hospitalization and care of sick individuals as a result of an influenza pandemic.
Major flu pandemics have occurred three times over the last century, beginning with the Spanish Flu in 1918, then the Asian Flu in 1957 and the Hong Kong Flu in 1968. Based on this trend, it is the generally accepted belief that major pandemics have a 10-40 year cycle.
While vaccination can limit the amount of persons who are likely to become infected with the flu virus, it is expected, that a significant number of persons will become ill and require hospitalization if an outbreak occurs.
The recently concluded Caribbean Community Pandemic Influenza Workshop, brought together more than one hundred persons from several countries in the region to examine gaps in pandemic influenza preparedness among CARICOM nations and discuss potential solutions.
The availability of safe drinking water during an outbreak is also a major public health concern which governments in the region are being urged to address.
Dr. Thomas Costa of the National Defence University, Centre for Hemispheric Defence Studies says it is worrisome that the national water supply of most Caribbean countries depend on electricity to operate. With predictions that a significant portion of the region’s labour force, including personnel that man power stations, will be absent from work for prolonged periods due to illness during an outbreak, Dr. Costa said regional governments should be using water supply and treatment plants that are able to operate without electricity and without man power.
He said that Grenada is probably the only Caribbean island that has a national water supply system which uses gravity instead of electricity.
In addition, he said, countries need to have a reserve capacity for storing water in the event the main water system is unable to functional for extended periods or if the water supply becomes contaminated.
“Many islands such as Trinidad and Tobago don’t store potable water for national use, so if the main water supply becomes contaminated, we will have millions of people without safe water to drink,” he pointed out. Noting that in 1988 Trinidad had such a situation when there was a disruption in the country’s water supply and for three weeks half of the island’s population had no water supply.
“We cannot depend on a single source of water supply, that could become catastrophic if there is a shortage of plant operators during an epidemic,” he stressed, noting that the flu virus can also be spread via water supply.
“Whereas bacteria can be killed with chlorine that cannot be done for a virus,” he stated.
During the threats in 2006 of a potential outbreak, Guyana had achieved international standards for the certification of livestock and other meat products for export with the opening a multi-million-dollar veterinary diagnostic laboratory.
The laboratory has the capabilities to test for the dreaded Avian Influenza virus (bird flu) and other poultry diseases. This laboratory is in the Ministry of Agriculture compound.
(Information provided by Panos Caribbean)