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No Confirmed Cases of Chik-V in Belize…Not Yet!
Oct 22, 2014

Facing the threat of the dread Ebola, the nation went on high alert, which is a polite way of saying we panicked. There’s no threat from that particular source any longer, but now there’s a new report that Chikungunya is here, specifically in one community in the City of Belmopan. Chikingunya, or CHIKV, doesn’t inspire quite the same paralyzing fear as Ebola, but if it has made its way to Belize, it is a significant health concern, much the same way Dengue is. We know that the presence of the virus has been confirmed in El Salvador and Guatemala, two of our Central American neighbours. We also know that there is a large migrant population in Belize, and frequent cross border travel to those countries. But did the unwanted visitor come calling? Mike Rudon travelled to Belmopan this morning to find out, and has the story.

Mike Rudon, Reporting

This vector control team has been conducting operations in Las Flores for two weeks, testing, spraying and educating residents. The community is the current hotspot for dengue, so therefore also a possible prime zone for Chikungunya. The name is hard to pronounce, so I’ll just call it Chik-V. It is carried by the adult mosquito, just like Dengue, and the symptoms are similar, except that there is more pronounced pain in the joints. Its incubation period is anywhere from three to seven days, and the symptoms can persist anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The case of allegedly confirmed Chik-V was found here in this community.

Kim Bautista

Kim Bautista, Vector Control Chief of Operations, Ministry of Health

“We don’t have a confirmed case of Chikungunya. To have a confirmed case of Chikungunya means that you have to have a patient who fits the criteria and has also tested positive using either an ELISA test or a PCR test, testing that has been approved by CDC and WHO. What we do have is an individual who visited a private lab facility in Belmopan. That person did a rapid test, a very popular rapid test that is on the market, and she tested positive using that rapid test.”

That sample was sent to the Ministry of Health, which has sent it to Belize City to the Central Lab for testing with a CDC approved kit. The results are pending for that specific person. But there are others – two to be precise, whose samples are also awaiting confirmation.

Kim Bautista

“We did have an individual who had travelled, a Salvadoran national who visited but her test is also pending. We also have a family member of the individual who had tested positive who has similar symptoms but who has not been clinically diagnosed. As a precaution, we also took a blood sample for confirmation. So in terms of persons who we have pending results for, it’s basically three persons, but confirmed cases no.”

Health officials say that Las Flores has always been a problematic area, first for malaria years ago, and now for Dengue, and maybe Chik-V. What is being used is called knock-down spray, a combination of chemical Icon and diesel. It targets the adult mosquito, and in households where there are positive cases of Dengue, the team sprays the home and a perimeter of fifty metres.

Kim Bautista

“It has a huge migrant community, and you have persons travelling back and forth to Guatemala and El Salvador, and in this case El Salvador which has several thousand Chikingunya cases. And even several cultural habits in terms of positive breeding sites you have a lot of what they refer to as ‘pilas’ which are containers that they use for laundry. They tend to store quite a bit of water in drums as well. And so you got to Las Flores and you find that in many areas. As Las Flores has expanded, you also have some areas with some poor housing, poor drainage and also just a habit of people storing a lot of containers around their premises.”

Figures for confirmed Dengue are on par with 2013, but there has been a spike in the incidences of hemorrhagic Dengue, which is much more serious. That’s the reasoning behind the ramped up operations, and with the possibility of Chik-V, those operations will continue. Like we said, don’t run for the hills just yet – Chik-V is no Ebola.

Marvin Manzanero

Dr. Marvin Manzanero, Interim Head of Epidemiology Unit, Ministry of Health

“I think it has wider ramifications in terms of the labour force, for example. Given the characteristics of Chikungunya, you have people who will be off from work anywhere from one to two weeks. If that starts to happen, and you have an outbreak, then you have potential losses in that regard. So that is why it needs to be seen as a problem which can go beyond the Ministry of Health. It perhaps doesn’t seem to be on the radar as Ebola, which has a higher mortality. Chikungunya can have mortality, but it is very minimal. It can be very similar to Dengue, and if you have a Dengue outbreak, Chikungunya can potentially have the same kind of effect.”

According to the Ministry of health’s Epidemiology Unit, there hasn’t been a death from hemorrhagic dengue since 2011.  Mike Rudon for News Five.

 

This afternoon, a fourth person from the area visited a private clinic and reported that they tested positive for CHIKV in Salvador before travelling to Belize. A sample has also been taken from that person and sent for testing. Up to news time, the Ministry of Health has not received any clinical confirmation from the tests. 

Vector Control Unit Resources in Action
Oct 22, 2014

Dengue has been identified in certain communities across the country, and that is where the Vector Control Unit pumps its resources. Like in Las Flores, for example, the team collects information on positive dengue tests from private labs and from the Western Regional Hospital, and then targets those homes for spraying. They’ll end up visiting every home in the community, but those households become priority areas. It’s a time and resource-intensive job, but with continuous aid from the European Union, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, the Unit has been reporting real success.

Kim Bautista, Vector Control Chief of Operations, Ministry of Health

Kim Bautista

“We had eleven vehicles handed over sometime in August. Through that project sometime this month we should be receiving an additional three vehicles. That is in addition to what we had at the various regions. That is a big project, the EU vector control project, it’s a two point two million Belize dollar project, and we are seeing a lot of advancements in terms of equipping the staff, mobilizing the staff, and we are having quite a bit of positive results. In terms of malaria, for example, we have malaria down to about four villages in Stann Creek this year, and less than ten cases, which is unprecedented for us. We haven’t seen that success since the late sixties, early seventies. So we’re making quite a bit of advancements in terms of that. What you must understand for Dengue and Chikungunya, the surveillance for Chikungunya basically piggy-backs on the Dengue surveillance program because you are dealing with the same mosquito vector, you’re dealing with the same breeding sites, you’re dealing with a similar type virus, and so if you’re strengthening the Dengue program, which we are strengthening, you should see better results in the coming months, and especially if we were to face an outbreak of Chikungunya down the road.”

In addition to specific operations like this one, the Vector Control Unit continues to maintain spraying for vector-borne diseases countrywide.

P.U.P. Leader Says Mahmud’s Resignation Has Been Accepted
Oct 22, 2014

Joseph Mahmud

We reported on Tuesday night that People’s United Party Cayo North Area Representative Joseph Mahmud will not be contesting his seat in the 2017 general elections.  The announcement was made in a letter to party leader, Francis Fonseca, last week Monday.  The news has subsequently sent shockwaves across the P.U.P. since the party feels it has been gaining a foothold in a predominantly red electorate; Mahmud and Cayo South’s Julius Espat are the two P.U.P. area representatives in the Western Caucus. In the last general elections, the P.U.P. fell short of winning Cayo Northeast and Cayo Central by a few votes. While Mahmud has decided to step down from electoral politics, he is still supporting the P.U.P. and will be assisting in finding his replacement.  This afternoon, News Five spoke with Fonseca who said that while the party is disappointed, Mahmud’s decision to withdraw from candidacy has been accepted and it is respected by the national executive.

Francis Fonseca, Party Leader, P.U.P.

Francis Fonseca

“He has not resigned as an area representative.  What he has said to us and said to me in a letter dated October thirteenth is that he will not seek re-election as an area representative for Cayo North.  As you know he was elected as area representative under the People’s United Party in 2012 and he has indicated that for personal reasons he will not be seeking re-election.  So he is giving the party fair warning and ample time to find another candidate who will then replace him and be our standard bearer in the next elections.  So, you know, we respect his decision.  It’s a personal decision that he has made.  We respect that decision, we support that decision.  In his letter he made it very clear that he will continue to serve out his term as area representative for Cayo North and he will continue to fully support the work of the People’s United Party.  In fact, he will be helping us to identify a suitable replacement candidate for Cayo North.  So we are disappointed obviously when we lose someone like Joseph Mahmud.  I believe and I have every confidence that he would have won re-elections, but I’m equally confident that we can find a proper, suitable replacement who will be able to keep that seat for the People’s United Party. As I said, this is decision made on the basis of personal reasons.  Mr. Mahmud, for personal reasons, is not able to continue his political career.  He remains in full support of the P.U.P., but I think in the west which has been a stronghold of the United Democratic Party for some time, we have been gaining ground.  In the last elections we won Cayo North and we won Cayo South and I think it’s clear that with the work that has gone into the west that we will pick up even more divisions in the next elections.  So we are very, very confident about the work that is being done in the west.”

Fonseca Supports Stance of PM Barrow on Ebola Scare
Oct 22, 2014

Francis Fonseca

Last Friday, U.S. Department of State’s Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that they are disappointed in Belize’s decision to turn down a request to have a lab technician and her husband airlifted from the Phillip Goldson International Airport to the United States.  An appeal was made on Thursday for the woman, an employee of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, who reportedly came in contact with specimen from deceased Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas, to be ferried ashore in Belize City from a Carnival cruise ship moored off the coast of Belize City.  Despite Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s initial refusal, the U.S. government persisted, going as far as flying a private aircraft into Belize’s airspace against the decision of the P.M.  Today, we asked Leader of the Opposition Francis Fonseca for his position on the comments made by the U.S. State Department.  He too supported the firm decision taken by P.M. Barrow.

Francis Fonseca, Leader of the Opposition

“We expect the United States to express disappointment but the reality is that that was the only responsible decision that Belize could make given the state or capacity of our health system.  We know best our health system and what, you know, what risk we can take with that health system.  There are so many uncertainties about this Ebola virus, even as I pointed out the day before the Ebola scare at our press conference, even the great United States have been having great difficulties dealing with this Ebola virus.  So, I think our government made the only responsible decision that could be made.  We have to be concerned about the safety and security of our citizens, that has to be our first priority.  So I support that decision, I think it was the right decision, it was the only responsible decision.  I am certain that with time the United States will understand that it was decision made on the basis of what was in the best interest of our citizens, just as they would do.”

 

We note that Mexico also refused the Carnival Magic from disembarking passengers at Cozumel and that on arrival at Galveston, the passengers were disembarked only after the lab technician tested negative for Ebola. 

B.D.F. Reports Frequent Confrontations with Guatemalans
Oct 22, 2014

Along the western and southern borders for some time now, B.D.F. soldiers are deployed to deter encroachments, illegal logging and xaté harvesting, as well as gold panning and the cultivation of marijuana, primarily at the hands of Guatemalans. Since the execution of Danny Conorquie, Brigadier General David Jones of the B.D.F. says the force is focusing on the Chiquibul, the Bladen and Columbia Forest Reserves, where Belize faces the biggest threat to its sovereignty. Jones explained that there have been numerous aggressive incursions by Guatemalans into Belize and many have gone unreported, but the soldiers have learnt the protocols to defend themselves and keep the peace.

Brig. Gen. David Jones, Commander, B.D.F.

David Jones

“Our soldiers have been threatened along the borders with Guatemala for decades; this isn’t something new for us. But we are always alert, we are always prepared for it so if it does happen, we know how to react and deal with it. These people are willing to defend what they believe with their lives and there have been instances that have been reported, but there have been instances where you would have about sixty Guatemalans with machetes and shotguns who would approach a B.D.F. patrol who probably would have captured one or two persons to take them in for police custody and they would aggress the patrol stating that if they don’t release them, we would have to kill all of them or  they would kill the members of the patrol. And sometimes it would be six to eight guys on that patrol walking out and sixty to seventy guys aggressing them. And the soldiers made the decision to hand over these people because if they don’t, we would end up killing sixty people along the border. That will spark a huge international incident. Those are some of the things that we encounter, but these Guatemalans are naturally aggressive. If Guatemalans or any foreign nationals are putting the lives of our soldiers at risk and putting the lives of any Belizean civilians at risk while working on those observation posts, the soldier is trained different from a police officer. If our lives are in danger or if any Belizean citizens’ lives are in danger, the difference with us is that we shoot to kill. We will not disarm anyone, we will not try to shoot you in the hand, in the leg; we will shoot to kill. That is the training of a soldier; that doesn’t change. In regards to rubber bullets and stunt guns…that is what you would use in riot control scenarios inside urban areas, probably Belize City amongst citizens. But when you are out on operations and you are out there operating with hostile civilians or hostile forces, I would not allow my soldiers to be taking any rubber bullets out there because those guys would not be shooting with rubber bullets. So we would have live ammunition and we would shoot with intention to kill.”

In terms of confidence building measures between Belize and Guatemala, a pledge has been made between the military of both countries to sensitize Guatemalan communities along the border. According to Brigadier General Jones, as a result of a joint commission meeting with Guatemalan officials, patrols will be held for the first time between both militaries to deter encroachments by Guatemalans.

Tourism Minister Says Cruise Protocols Being Reviewed
Oct 22, 2014

Following the Ebola scare last week, several measures were put in place before passengers of cruise ships are disembarked to come on land. The new protocols such as screening of passports are causing huge delays for cruise ships passengers who spend an average of eight hours in Belize. On some days, up to four ships call to port and there are few immigration officers to deal with the screenings. The cruise lines have reportedly expressed concern about the effect the measures are having on its passengers. Minister of Tourism, Manuel Heredia Junior, told the media that stakeholders have been in communication with the cruise lines and are discussing ways to ease the process.

Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism

“Whenever these type of activities happen, as a government we have to be extremely cautious; it is a very sensitive industry and it is the bread and butter of many destinations. There were some measures that were taken, but again, you know the cruise lines also have, they are a business entity, and they want to make sure that the passengers are safer. So there are certain measures, particularly one with the passports that was taken that we are revisiting that particular one. And I believe that indeed we supposed to do so because these people, it is not the first point of entrance, Belize is not the first destination. They go to Honduras, Mexico and then finally Belize. So we are looking at that and I am hoping that by this evening, we will have a concrete idea as to how we will move forward in that direction.”

Duane Moody

Manuel Heredia Jr.

“Is there concern there where carnival cruise lines might decide to pull its port of call to Belize and affect the tourism industry?”

Reporter

“And adding to that, while he is asking if there was some concern, was there a letter or some form of correspondence that came in from the cruise line threatening to do so?”

Manuel Heredia Jr.

“No, I’ll let them tell you….they were worried about the measures that we had taken. But I am sure that the communication between both entities of the cruise lines and our government officials, I am sure that by this evening that will be resolved.”

 

Late this afternoon, the B.T.B. agreed to streamline measures to allow for a smoother flow in processing passengers.