The Ministry of Health has put the public on high alert following recent announcements by the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) of the confirmed presence of Zika Virus in a Caribbean territory.

Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Merlene Fredericks indicated that the Ministry of Health has ramped up its surveillance and testing procedures for Zika virus as well as dengue and chikungunya. Zika is spread in a similar manner as dengue and chikungunya – by the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito.

She said that although there are no confirmed cases of Zika virus on the island, it is only a matter of time before it spreads to the rest of the Caribbean, including St. Lucia.

“To date we have noticed no abnormal trend. We are actually below the normal level that we see for these sort of illnesses – what we call undifferentiated fever, dengue, chikungunya – so we are actually at a very low level right now. We are doing random testing of certain samples when persons come in with fever and joint pain, even if we believe it’s dengue or chikungunya. We’re also taking some samples to send to CARPHA as ask them to check for Zika virus as well,” the senior health official said.

Zika causes an illness which is very similar to symptoms experienced with dengue fever and chikungunya, such as fever, muscle or joint pain and sometimes development of a rash. However, unlike dengue and chikungunya, Zika causes redness of the eyes in some cases.

Fredericks highlighted the recent alert by CARPHA for pregnant mothers to take special caution to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

“We would like to give a special warning to pregnant mothers. Mosquitoes actually prefer pregnant mothers. When someone is pregnant the body temperature increases and that’s one of the things that actually attracts mosquitoes,” she explained.

The Chief Medical Officer also noted that in Brazil and other countries experiencing a Zika outbreak it has been observed that there is an increased incidence of a congenital abnormality called microcephaly.

“In some cases, if a pregnant mother gets infected with Zika early in her pregnancy during the time that the baby is developing in the womb, the baby can actually have an abnormality where the head is smaller than it should be…They have also realized in countries with ongoing epidemic that although most of the cases are mild and many persons who have it don’t even know they have it, in a few instances person can develop what is called Guillain Barre Syndrome which is a temporary weakening and sort of paralysis of the muscles which can be mild or severe and most times persons would have to be treated in hospital,” she added.

Fredericks advocates wearing long clothing, particularly at dusk and dawn when the Aedes aegypti mosquito is known to be most active, and advises that bed nets, window and door screens and insect repellents to avoid mosquito bites.

She emphasized that the public needs to prepare for the disease by employing similar prevention strategies as with dengue and chikungunya: limit the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito and reduce the overall mosquito population.

Prevention, she said, had to start in the home with ensuring that yards are clean and free of debris; bulky waste is disposed of at the landfill; tires are disposed of, shredded or filled with soil; drums are covered properly; and flower vases filled with soil and not water as the Ades aegypti mosquito breeds mainly in clear stagnant water.