Jamaica 2016 Year In Review: Health

From the appearance of the Zika virus and the very real threat of microcephaly, to new-born infants dying from infections in two of the nation’s most revered hospitals, 2016 was a year in which Jamaica’s healthcare system frequently held the attention of the nation. The spotlight on health and health-related issues highlighted the many challenges the nation’s policymakers and practitioners undergo to deliver quality healthcare to its citizens. Here are our picks for Jamaica’s most outstanding (and impactful) health news stories in 2016:

Zika Virus

From the start of 2016, the wane of the chikungunya virus (chik-V) and the rise of its successor, the Zika virus (ZIKV), also spread mainly by mosquito bites, became apparent. It wasn’t just in Jamaica either. By June, the Zika virus was a very real problem in the Caribbean and North American region. It was already present in, or making its way to other parts of the world as well. With it came the very serious problem of microcephaly (a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected) in babies conceived by women who had the virus, compounded by the fact that the virus can stay in a person’s system for up to six months. By July 11, The Gleaner reported seven pregnant women confirmed and another 150 suspected of having the Zika virus in Jamaica.

Dead Babies Scandal

Pregnancies continued to be the focal point of health news later in the year when four babies were reported to have died at the Victoria Jubilee maternal hospital (VJH) from complications related to the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria. This after revelations in 2015 of 17 prenatal baby deaths from serratia and klebsiella bacteria. On October 30, The Gleaner published a story claiming that it had received a copy of a report requested of and submitted by VJH officials, which showed that 26 babies had in fact died at the institution between August and September of this year (“after contracting an infection from their mothers during vaginal delivery at the hospital”). However, this was disputed by hospital and health officials, who called The Gleaner’s report on the issue “irresponsible, inaccurate and an absolute misrepresentation”.

Collapsing student athletes

The year 2016 saw the realisation of a disturbing trend of student athletes collapsing at sports meets. Two deaths in particular – that of Dominic James, an 18-year-old St George’s College football player, and that of Saymar Ramsay, 18-year-old Spot Valley High basketballer – in quick succession – drove home the point that there needed to be better medical attention provided to student athletes. It sparked debates and discussions about the adequacy of existing medical screening requirements for participation in school athletics, and the level of care given to students who volunteer for this form of extra-curricular activity, with parents, students, teachers, coaches and the wider nation mourning the loss of two young athletes at such an early age. See diGJamaica’s infographic and links to articles on the issue here.

JDF recruits’ mysterious illness

With 2016 drawing to a close, reports surfaced in December of a mystery illness that caused 80 Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) recruit soldiers to fall ill from a respiratory infection. Dr Winston De La Haye, chief medical officer in the Ministry of Health, told The Gleaner that it was believed that the recruits contracted the bacterial infection while at JDF training facilities in Newcastle and/or Twickenham Park. Samples were taken from the recruits and sent to the  Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) was called in to help assess what exactly caused the illness. To this time (December 30, 2016), the illness remains a mystery.