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UWI Tackles Caribbean Emergency Response to Zika and Beyond

For Release Upon Receipt - Thursday, March 17, 2016

Experts agree that the region needs better infrastructure and stronger health systems. Caribbean countries are not equipped to respond to the region’s next public health emergency, and must take urgent steps to coordinate national and regional emergency response strategies. That was the consensus among international experts and senior regional officials from across the Caribbean who met inBridgetown, Barbados on March 4-5 for a Zika Symposium to discuss implementing a harmonised regional response to the Zika virus.

Immediately following the declaration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February,that Zika had becomeglobal public health emergency, UWI Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles appointed a 13-member RegionalZika Task Forcecomprising University experts. One of his key strategic tools in executing his vision as Vice-Chancellor has been the expeditious establishment of specialised Task Forces which bring together multi-disciplinary experts to tackle myriad challenges affecting the region.

The Symposium in Barbados was led by the RegionalZika Task Force and is part of The UWI’s ongoing effort to assist Caribbean nations to coalesce their separate national health emergency response plans into one regionalcollaborative, interdisciplinary and sustained approach to confront the virus.“We want to make use of this health emergency to strengthen what the University can do when there is an outbreak of this sort,” said Professor Clive Landis, who chairs the Task Force.

Discussions at the Symposium, centredon theimmediate danger and long termconsequences to the Caribbean caused by the increasing Zika threat.Angela Rose,an infectious disease epidemiologist at The UWI Cave Hill campus and a member of the Task Force, shared perspectives from her work in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak that affected Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. She recommended that effort be invested in strengthening basic national public health systems, adding “The reason that the Ebola outbreak posed such a challenge there was becausethere were serious pre-existing problems with the public health systems and infrastructure. They wereextremely fragile.” She noted, “Caribbean countries should treat the Zika threat as a context to develop an all-hazard emergency response framework.”

In addition to underscoring the call for strengthening public health care systems, Task Force Chair, Professor Landis emphasised communication with respect to managing the virus. He stated, “The Barbados Symposium reached the same conclusion as a WHO symposium held in Geneva on March 7-9 — that current Aedes mosquito eradication measures have not been sufficiently effective at controlling dengue fever outbreaks. The Aedes is the same mosquito vector as for Zika and so it is recommended that ‘top down’ approaches be supplemented with 'bottom up' approaches to better empower individuals and communities to take charge of their own environments to eliminate mosquito breeding sites. The UWI RegionalZika Task Force’s sub group for communication and community engagement is working urgently to help inform Caribbean communities on the changing mosquito behaviours and adaptations to better identify and target new mosquito breeding sites."

The overarching issue of increasing national capacity echoed throughout several of the Symposium contributions over the two days. “Caribbean health systems must have sufficient capacity so that if there are outbreaks or threats, that we are prepared for that,with the relevant programmes, human resources, systemsand equipment,”urged Eric van Gorp, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre, Holland and a member of the Task Force. “We also need clinical testing from Caribbean countries, because the answers that we get from other countries—Brazil or Suriname—do not always apply to Barbados or Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. So we have to develop that capacity within the region too," said van Gorp.

According to Vice-Chancellor Beckles, developing the region’s capacity is exactly what The UWI has set out to do. At a follow-up press conference to the Symposium on March 10, he noted that this response to Zika is The UWI becoming a more activist institution. He declared “The University is rolling out a strategy to face the many challenges affecting the people of the Caribbean region. This Zika virus Task Force is one of many others to come. The UWI is going to be aggressive in engaging all the challenges facing the Caribbean civilization.”

For more on The UWI’s response to the Zika virus, visit


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