Antigua & Barbuda is using its trade policy arsenal to help prevent the entry of the Zika virus into that twin-island Caribbean State. According to a news report published by the Antiguan Observer, the Cabinet of Antigua & Barbuda has permitted the removal of import duties on several “mosquito defense systems”, such as mosquito nets, screens and coils, to make them more affordable for the local population there.
The current Zika virus outbreak is one of the most serious public health threats spreading across the Americas, with cases also being reported in the Pacific and Asia. Though the virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and previous Zika outbreaks have happened in the past, this current incarnation appears to be one of the most globally widespread. Based on the advice of the first meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee, the WHO Director General declared the Zika outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 1 February 2016.
The Zika virus, colloquially known as Zik-V, is spread by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, the vector which also transmits dengue fever, yellow fever and the Chikungunya virus. According to the Pan-American Health Organisation, the symptoms of Zika include “a mild fever, skin rash (exanthema), and conjunctivitis”.
Worryingly, after an increased incidence of infants being born with microcephaly in Brazil, the country worst affected by the current Zika outbreak, it is widely suspected that in pregnant women, the Zika virus could result in the foetus being born with this rare neurological condition which results in the child’s head having a circumference which is small for its age and size. However, the WHO Emergency Committee agreed that while a causal relationship between the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, it is not yet scientifically proven. Currently, no vaccine or treatment exists for Zika.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first reported case of local transmission of the Zika virus in the Caribbean was in December 2015. While Antigua & Barbuda has not had any reported or suspected cases of the Zika virus to date, the recent PAHO situation report outlines a total of 33 countries across the Caribbean, Central America and Latin America which have reported cases of the autochthonous transmission of the Zika virus between 2014-2016. In the United States, the Governor of Florida has declared a state of emergency in counties where the Zika virus has appeared.
For the countries of the Caribbean, the economic implications are high as the virus has made its appearance during the height of the Region’s tourist season. Several countries have issued travel warnings to Zika infected countries and the Caribbean Tourism Organisation is monitoring the situation closely.
It is instructive to note that in its recommendations included in its situation report, the PAHO/WHO stated that the emergency committee “found no justification for restrictions on travel or trade”. It also stops short of advising pregnant women to not travel to infected areas, by stating “[p]regnant women considering travel to affected areas may wish to consult their health care provider prior to travel and after return”.
Caribbean countries, through their public health and other authorities, have been employing various Zika preventative and mitigation strategies, such as instituting fogging programmes, launching public awareness campaigns and advising women to delay becoming pregnant for up to two years. The Future Centre Trust, a non-governmental organisation in Barbados, is raising awareness among the general public on the need to reduce opportunities for mosquitoes to breed by eliminating littering and illegal dumping and by mapping illegal dump sites. An article which the Trust authored on the topic may be viewed here.
At the regional level, the Caribbean Regional Public Health Authority (CARPHA) has published Zika guidelines for travellers and hotels and guesthouses and will brief the CARICOM Heads of Governments on the Zika situation at the Heads of Governments’ Inter-sessional Meeting slated to take place February 16-17. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation has an information page entitled “FAQs on Zika and Caribbean travel” on its website.
Among the measures recommended by PAHO in its situation report are the use of repellant, physical barriers like mosquito screens and sleeping under mosquito nets. Therefore, the move by Antigua & Barbuda to remove import duties on these mosquito defense systems is a pro-active one, and combined with their use and awareness by the general public, it should help to prevent the spread of the virus there.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.