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The economic impact of the chikungunya virus

Monday, March 2, 2015
Science and Society

The Chikungunya or ChikV virus has spread to the Caribbean, Central and South America infecting over a million people. In T&T, like other countries, the population also faces stomach flu and dengue. While bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, viral infections are complex and thus a lot more difficult to treat. There are vaccines for some but others like ChikV have no cure—to date. 

There are more than a hundred different virus variants that cause the flu and indeed new strains are continuously evolving, on average, one every two to three years. A new strain called the Sydney Strain has caused infections in Australia, Japan, Western Europe and the USA. It is reported to be highly contagious and is widespread in Puerto Rico. As is the case with many viral infections, highly interconnected global travel ensures a fast spread. 

A significant proportion of our population seems to be afflicted by ChikV. Official figures are hard to come by as we do not have a history of collecting data from private medical practices. But judging from the numbers of cases/reports one comes by during normal everyday interactions, and the shortage of a popular strong painkiller normally recommended to alleviate the acute pain, in some areas of the country it can be so inferred. 

ChikV causes both acute and chronic infections. Acute joint pains lasting from a few days to several months are not unusual. During this time the quality of life of the infected is severely compromised. As if this is not bad enough, up to sixty per cent of the afflicted may have persistent symptoms for periods ranging from 12 to 15 months and in some, it may last for up to three years. 

The virus mimics rheumatoid arthritis and those 45 years and over and with existing osteoarthritis are particularly vulnerable. The resultant effect is the compromising of the mobility and functionality of a proportion of the workforce. There is thus a negative impact on productivity and a financial burden on both the individual and state through the public health facilities. 

The state of Andhra Pradesh in India estimated that the economic cost of the virus for a five-month period was 12 million US dollars. The Indian Ocean island of La Reunion reported a sixty per cent decrease in tourism following an outbreak in 2005/2006. Nearer home, in Jamaica, significant losses running into tens of millions of dollars, is estimated. For T&T, figures are not available, but it must be significant, as has been the case everywhere else. 

In terms of the severity, impact and chronic nature of the ChikV virus, a sustained and focused effort must be made by the state and citizens alike to really, as much as is humanly possible, eradicate the mosquito population. This virus has the potential to slow or reduce economic growth and strain the resources at the health institutions. As there is no cure, prevention is the best defence. 

The recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus took attention away from the ChikV. The travel bans from the afflicted countries and the international effort to combat its spread has resulted in the containment of that disease. In the meanwhile the ChikV, under the radar as such, continues to spread at an alarming rate bringing about great human misery, suffering and unsustainable financial burdens to large sections of the global population; particularly those in the developing world. 

Here at home, in light of the evolving viruses and the fact that the incurable ChikV is here, we must be prepared for the distinct possibility that, in the near future, a new more severe strain may evolve. We are a pretty small country and the continuously cycling of several virus variants in the population presents favourable conditions for the evolution of a hybrid strain of the ChikV. It is not something to look forward to.


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