Opinion: Chikungunya

POSTED: 02/24/14 11:55 PM

Below is the unabridged text of Jeff Berger’s take on the way the government in St. Maarten is handling the chikungunya crisis.:

There is no question that until Chikungunya arrived here in December, SXM was poised for an outstanding tourist season. Reservations were up. The economy was continuing to improve. And then the blizzards started hitting, one after the other, across North America, country St. Maarten’s largest market.

Despite the fact that Chikungunya, which is not fatal, was growing in incidence here in SXM and apparently starting to supplant Dengue Fever, which can be fatal, the travel warnings issued by the governments of the United States and Canada have spooked hundreds of thousands of people. It appears that there was a negligible effect on SXM travel because of this in January, and in February the negative effect appears to have been balanced by increased travel due to North American weather.  But our Chikungunya stories in Social Media, where we now have about 14,000 followers, indicate that March could see a significant and possibly a sharp drop in tourism due not only to Chikungunya, but also to the island’s lack of planned, structured, prompt, positive crisis PR visibility in the American and Canadian press. Urging people on the island to take protective measures against Chikungunya only addresses the problem on the island: the bigger issue is countering misinformation overseas, and about that the island appears to be doing nothing.

Many people remember the Tylenol murders in 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area died from cyanide poisoning from extra-strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide poison. McNeil Laboratories responded with classic, textbook handling of the crisis, reassuring the public, focusing on product safety, and saving its brand from marketplace extinction.

We are convinced that, at the very least, St. Maarten / St. Martin will see many tens of thousands of people less than it would have this year had both sides of the island joined forces when this epidemic started and launched a crisis PR program in North America.

Everythingstmaarten.com is getting the word out to its audiences through newsletters, emails, and social media, but misleading warnings from North American governments are causing a fair amount of travel panic among SXM’s primary demographic including older timeshare owners, who usually come no matter what. The island needs to act but no matter what it does at this late hour, SXM will likely see a significant to sharp drop in tourism starting in March and possibly for the entire year thanks to Chikungunya and the island’s failure to move into crisis PR mode and counter misinformation.

On the Dutch Side, matters are the absolute worst because of a misguided and factually incorrect texting program apparently initiated by SZV that misuses the misleading term “life threatening.” Those posts will go viral on the net and have the potential to greatly exacerbate what already is a huge problem for the island.

This is the article we are running in SXM Weekly News for Monday, February 24. Its title is “Misleading Stories About Chikungunya Virus”.

First, we’re not affiliated with St. Maarten or St. Martin as a PR mouthpiece. Our job is to tell the SXM story warts and all for the benefit of our JMB Website Supporters members and our many readers worldwide.

But the handling of the current Chikungunya virus story by the U. S. and Canadian governments has been both atrocious and misleading, and quite frankly, the governments here in SXM — both of them — seem to be doing little to tell the real story of what Chikungunya is and what’s going on to US and Canadian audiences.

First, we’ll tell you about Dengue Fever which is somewhat similar to Chikungunya but most decidedly worse. Dengue has been around for years and no one, as far as we know, has ever cancelled travel because of it. It’s spread by day-biting Aedes Agypti mosquitoes if those mosquitoes have bitten an infected person before biting you. Those mosquitoes are black with white spots and white leg markings. Dengue causes major joint pain and lasts roughly a week or so. Dengue can also be fatal. Its incidence here seems to be declining.

Chikungunya, which is new to the Caribbean, is spread exactly the same way. It rarely (if ever) requires any hospitalization and it cannot cause death, except (very rarely) to people who are quite sick already.

Its joint pain can be severe, but it’s usually over in a few days. Bottom line, though it causes significant joint pain, Chikungunya is decidedly less serious than Dengue since it can’t cause death — and the pain it causes usually dissipates faster than Dengue (usually in a few days versus a week or two for Dengue), though Chikungunya joint pain can persist.

Press “warnings” about Chikungunya imply it is a huge problem. It absolutely is not. It’s less of a deal than the flu in the U. S.: remember that flu kills 40,000 people every year in the US alone.

Smart people here are using Mosquito Milk natural repellent or Off, both available at Le Grand Marche markets. The government should be getting the word out about this via a crisis PR program but apparently it thinks telling people to remove standing water, spray to kill bugs, wear long-sleeve clothing, and use repellents is enough. It is dead wrong.

Perhaps it assumes people won’t cancel trips based on widespread  misinformation in the US and Canada about Chikungunya but it is dead wrong about that too; hotels are telling us of cancellations for March based on the misinformation we mentioned above.

Again, Chikungunya is significantly less serious than Dengue Fever. Dengue seems to be declining here and Chikungunya is increasing. The fact of the matter is that is positive news. Chikungunya is not a fun illness, but it doesn’t threaten your life as Dengue fever can. Spread the word…

Jeff Berger,

CEO JMB Communications

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