July 12, 2014

Living through an Epidemic

Imagine a mysterious disease is sweeping through your community. In the span of a few weeks almost all your neighbors, family, and friends have fallen ill. Your government says the disease is a virus from Africa and Asia transmitted via mosquitoes. Would you trust the government's word?  If you live in the U.S. your answer is probably, "Sure, I trust the government and the Center for Disease Control to tell me the truth." Dominicans are not so trusting.

CDC Warning for Vacationers
Right now the Dominican Republic is dealing with an outbreak of the Chikungunya virus (pronunciation: \chik-en-gun-ye). Symptoms include high fever, myalgia, skin rash, and joint pain. Most symptoms go away after three days. Except for joint pain, which can last up to four months. Thankfully Chikungunya is not fatal. Since the virus arrived in the Caribbean in December 2013 it has been spreading like wildfire. Almost everyone I know in my community has had the virus. Some have even claimed to have had Chikungunya twice, although according to medical professionals once infected, a person should be immune for the rest of their life. But Dominicans do not believe this is true.

Dominicans do not believe most of what the government and medical professionals are saying about Chikungunya. Most Dominicans say that the virus has spread too rapidly for it to be transmitted by mosquitoes. Dominicans are accustomed to dengue, another the mosquito transmitted virus. Dengue has similar symptoms to Chikungunya except you can get it up to 5 times, and it can be deadly. Dengue has been present in the D.R. for a long time, so the transmission rate is not as high as it is for the newly introduced Chikungunya.

When asked how Chikungunya is spread, Dominicans will say by the air. The reason why it is spread via the air, however, varies by community. Other volunteers have told me rumors of government experiments gone wrong, a strong wind from Africa, and a chemical spill. In Samaná, the region where I live, the theory is that the cause of the virus stems from toxic trash that was dumped along the southern coast of the peninsula. Apparently when the trash was dumped, over 12 years ago, the people in the surrounding communities began to get sick. The government then buried the trash in a different part of the region, and people there began to get sick too, so the government dug a bigger hole. According to my neighbors Chikungunya is just another chapter in the saga of the toxic trash.

All the rumors have made me wonder, "Why don't Dominicans trust the word of their government?" My neighbors say it is because the government is always lying to them. Unlike Americans, Dominicans have not grown up for generations in a country known for democracy and freedom of the press. Many Dominicans still remember what it was like to live under the harsh rule of the dictator Trujillo. Many of Tujillo's successors were not much better. As a result, Dominicans today are suspicious of politicians and the government, and they worry about backsliding into their autocratic past. Chikungunya is a foreign word, it sounds made-up to Dominicans. In a country where previous governments have covered up assassinations and embezzlement, it isn't too far a stretch to think that the government just made-up Chikungunya to hide another problem.

It also doesn't help that even politicians don't believe that Chikungunya is spread by mosquitoes. When Senator Prim Pujals came to visit my community last month he announced that the government was sending workers out to the rural areas to spray insecticide to kill mosquitoes. He then said, "Not that it matters much, because Chikungunya is in the air."

One thing everyone can agree on is that Chikungunya is not done its rampage just yet. It is expected that by the end of the summer 50 percent of the population on the island will have become infected. I have yet to become ill, but my time may be out shortly. I will soon be spending five nights at a summer camp with over 100 other girls from around the country. It should be a fun, if exhausting, time. The camp is at an eco-lodge so we will be outside all day long, and it just so happens that the mosquito that carries the virus is a day eater (or so medical professionals would have us believe). A good number of volunteers and kids were struck-down during the boys camp a few weeks ago. I am bringing two girls from my community who luckily have already been infected so they are safe. However, I am not. Wish me the best of luck!

So as not to end on a ominous note, here are some awesome things that happened this week:

A portion of my neighbors' generosity
  • It rained a lot so now all my tanks are filled and I got to wash my laundry.
  • Kids came to class in the rain!
  • I have teenagers helping out with my literacy classes.
  • My neighbors gave me 6 mangos, 4 bananas, 6 plantains, 20 passion fruits, and too many limoncillos to count!
  • I made 5.2 liters of passion fruit juice. I gave half of what I made to my neighbors (different neighbors than the ones who originally gave me the fruit).
  • Power was out in my community for 42 hours, that is a new record since I have been here. The awesome part is that it came back on!
  • Romeo played with another dog - Romeo has "issues" and doesn't really like to hang out with other dogs. He isn't aggressive, he just doesn't like to interact with other dogs.
  • Kelly and I played Monopoly with my 9 and 14 year-old neighbors. Kelly and I where called tramposas (cheaters) - it was a blast. More to come about competitive cross-cultural differences next week.
    Monopoly Negotiations

No comments:

Post a Comment