Setting the record straight [or semi straight] on Sharks {in Barbados}

Sharks

Sharks are part of the Class Chondrichthyes and the Subclass: Elasmobranchs which consist of sharks, rays and skates, that have skeletons made of cartilage, not bone. Sharks are fish that have been around way longer than we, humans have. Most sharks are slow growing species that sexually mature at a late age and give birth to few live young, which makes them susceptible to the pressures of overfishing. 

Importance of Sharks

These species play a critical role in maintaining balance in marine ecosystems. In their role as apex predators in the food chain, they remove old and sick individuals keeping populations healthy and serving as indicators of ocean health. When sharks are overfished, other fisheries have the potential to collapse.

 So, do we have sharks in Barbados?

Yes, we do. This is not anything new with a small shark fishery existing on the island. As someone who was born and bred in Barbados and grew up in a family of fishers, I remember many stories from my grandfather and uncles of experiences with sharks when fishing, spearfishing or diving. 

As someone who has studied sharks and rays in Barbados and the Caribbean for the past few years and is currently doing research on elasmobranch species, I can confirm that the waters of Barbados do contain shark species. 

The poster below was generated during my work on the shark fishery of Barbados with FAO. From conducting interviews with fisherfolk, divers and spearfishers at markets & landing sites around the island as well as observing and identifying species being caught,  primarily by the local longline fleet, and sighted by divers, a poster with the most common shark species was produced. It must be noted that this poster contains both nearshore and reef associated shark and ray species (mainly found on the North and East of the island) as well as offshore species (those most commonly landed and sold in the market). 

The local name for a Caribbean Reef shark is a ‘smooth skin’ shark. However, ‘smooth skin’ shark is also the common name globally for silky sharks – just to confuse things and Bajans call most sharks smooth skin. Ya copy?

Fishers also catch thresher and lemon sharks and potentially others, which have not been included as yet in the poster.  

Barbados Sharks and Rays 

I am currently collaborating with https://globalfinprint.org, the world’s largest shark and ray survey in a worldwide effort to assess coral reef sharks and rays, understand how they affect vanishing ecosystems and inform emerging conservation actions. Over the past week, sampling the reefs of the island to determine diversity and abundance of predatory species including elasmobranchs has taken place. We have been deploying baited remote underwater videos (BRUVS) that will also help to confirm some of the species sighted by divers and caught by fishers in the waters of the island.

Here is a screenshot of one of our trips in which a Caribbean reef shark (‘smooth skin’) cruises by on the South east coast of the island.

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So yes Barbados has a small shark fishery which I have worked with BARNUFO and fisherfolk as well as the Fisheries Division to make it as sustainable as possible and increase education to promote conservation of these crucial species. 

So let’s talk about the great fear of sharks. Sharks vs humans: Are they the danger, or are we?

Many humans have a great fear of sharks, fuelled by a combination of the media’s stereotypic characterisation of sharks as well as shark attack scenes in Hollywood films such as Jaws, which are filled with misinformation and only increase unnecessary fear.
A conservative estimate of 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year; that’s 11,417 sharks killed per hour, mainly for the shark fin trade. The fins are cut off the shark and the carcasses dumped in the sea. 

Of the approximately 500 different species of sharks found in the world’s oceans, only about a dozen of these should be considered particularly dangerous when encountered. The shark species responsible for most unprovoked attacks on humans are the Great white, tiger and bull species. All sharks, are however predators and are capable of inflicting wounds if provoked and as such should be treated with respect when encountered.

Now what about shark attacks in Barbados?

According to the Global Shark Attack File from the Shark Research Institute , there have been 4 reported “unprovoked attacks” (2 fatal) in Barbados, the last one being in 1922.  “Unprovoked attacks” are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark. There may very well have been others but they have not been reported. I have also heard of attacks occurring when shore whaling for humpback whales used to occur in Speightstown. They would tow in the dead whales, which resulted in a bay of blood and consequently attracted sharks.  

In my lifetime, there have been a few shark interactions between sharks and divers, spearfishers and fishers in which sharks may steal bait from spearfishers or when caught by fishers and being hauled into the boat they have caused some damage. Just remember, sharks are the bosses of the seas. They are predators and have the capability to attack. When you enter areas where it is known that sharks are found, you are entering their home and must be respectful and wary of that. 

So let’s fight the fear with facts. There are many other things that are more likely to kill you than sharks: alligators, lightning, tornados, box jellyfish, mosquito borne diseases, smoking and alcohol related illnesses, gun violence and more. 

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And if you must fear sharks, it is their consumption that you should be thinking about.  Pay closer attention to the consumption of sharks as many species contain high levels of mercury. When it accumulates, it acts as a neurotoxin and has the ability to negatively impact the human nervous system. It is suggested that children and pregnant women do not eat shark due to potential health implications. 

Although the relative risk of a shark attack is small, risks should always be minimised whenever possible in any activity. Here are some tips to decrease your already small chance of becoming victim in a shark attack: 

  1. Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  2. Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.  
  3. Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
  4. Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing — sharks see contrast particularly well.
  5. Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
  6. Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep dropoffs — these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
  7. Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one!

If you see a shark when in the water, it is best to face them and not take your eyes off them. If diving, also dive with a buddy and if spearfishing, conceal fish in a suitable bag like a crocus bag. Even though I do not encourage harming species, if you are attacked, here is what to do:  concentrate your blows against the eyes, gills or snouts. 

Unfortunately sharks are a very misunderstood species so I would like to invite you to check out Sharks in Barbados on Facebook to join the conversation where I try to increase education and awareness on sharks in the island and world.

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The Story of Plastic

I have had a deep passion for the ocean for as long as I can remember. I am fascinated by the many roles that the ocean carries out as well as the amazing wildlife it provides a habitat for.

  • 70% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine plants so that breath you just took, thank the little marine plants
  • 97% of the Earth’s water supply is contained in the ocean
  • 30% of CO2 emissions produced by humans are absorbed by the oceans

We rely on the oceans for food, fishing, employment, income and more.

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However, our oceans are suffering due to a multitude of threats. One of these is plastic, in which the oceans are drowning.

After watching a screening of A Plastic Ocean at the Barbados Independent Film Festival, I was left feeling overwhelmed and scared but also inspired by the powerful message in this documentary.  It forced me to question my consumption of plastic and to do further research in order to share a small bit of this with as many people as possible.

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So let’s talk about plastic. It is a synthetic polymer made up of hydrocarbon material often derived from petroleum, natural gas or coal. Plastic is cheap and convenient but comes with a growing environmental and health cost.

Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. In this past minute that you have been reading this, more than one million plastic bags have been used!

Plastic is all around us. It forms much of the packaging for our food and drink. It can be found in our homes, at work; in our clothing, toothbrushes, computers, phones, dishes, utensils, toys and the list goes on.

Bajans love a plastic bag. Can I get that in a plastic bag in a plastic bag please? Oh loss don’t even start with Styrofoam. These may be examples of plastic that easily come to mind but the problem of plastic pollution goes way deeper than this. Plastics do not easily degrade by any natural process. They may break down, but only into smaller pieces. The smaller those pieces get, the more places they can go.

Some may enter our already crowded landfill or recycling stations; others into our limited water resources and most eventually ends up in our oceans with some being absorbed into us–creating greater waste, environmental and health issues.

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In this next minute that you have been reading, the equivalent of a garbage truck load of plastic has gone into the World’s oceans.

Did you know, for example, that about eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the seas every year? That’s the size of 40,000 blue whales – the largest animals on Earth. Or that By 2050 (if nothing changes) there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

Most ocean trash originates from land. In the Caribbean, about 90% of the marine litter collected came from land based sources of pollution.

When this plastic enters the oceans in its many forms, marine life cannot distinguish it from their natural diet and thus it enters them and the food chain.

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Plastic has had detrimental impacts on many species including turtles, sea birds, dolphins, whales and fish.

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So if you’re eating fish for dinner tonight, it is likely that your seafood may be served with a side of plastic. The thought of eating plastic isn’t pleasant. If someone asked you to take a bite out of a pet bottle, most of you would say no. However, eat six oysters and the odds are you’ve swallowed 50 pieces of plastic. If you aren’t feeling overwhelmed or a bit scared by now, read on.

Why are plastics so bad? They contain many chemicals and toxins including phthalates, often found in glue. They have been banned in many parts of the world and are especially concerning for men and boys as they have been linked to lower testosterone and male infertility – no man wants that. Plastic also contains bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used to make DVDs. You wouldn’t eat a DVD would you?

The story gets worse. Floating plastic acts as a magnet for pesticides and other chemicals found in the ocean. These chemicals are known to disrupt human hormones and cause cancer.

There’s lots of talk about microplastics. They may be small but they equal big problems.  They are  <5mm in size & not visible to the naked eye but are found in many products that we use including personal care products such as face washes and toothpastes as microbeads. As we brush our teeth or wash our face, they wash down the drain and into our water source and the sea. Aside from the health implications of putting these on and into our skin, they are also ending up in the ocean and the food chain and potentially back into us.

Basically, we eat the fish that are eating plastic and therefore we are eating the toxins in plastic too!

Definitely try to limit intake of top predators such as shark, swordfish, and tuna because toxins magnify as you go up the food chain.

Potential Solutions/Alternatives

So now that we are aware of the impacts of plastic, what can we do to help?

Firstly, try to reduce the amount of disposable plastic you buy, use & consume. There are simple alternatives such as using your own reusable shopping bag, use a refillable water bottle (stainless steel or glass are the best options now along with using filtered water of course), say no to plastic bottles, straws & if it is a must, buy a reusable stainless steel or glass one; take your own glass container to the food court to get that portion of pie.

Some other options: rethink food storage using jars or glass containers instead; give up gum (made of plastic) – don’t target products? ; take the mask off your face; take your own container for take out; use cloth diapers; Cut back on processed & packaged foods

Many types of synthetic fiber clothing also contain plastics and plastic chemicals. When possible, opt for natural fiber clothing (like cotton, wool, hemp, linen, etc) over synthetics like polyester, lycra, etc

Yes, people are more conscious and are taking steps forward – they are practicing recycling which may help to reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in our landfills, waterways and ecosystems but only a few types of plastics can be recycled. There are talks of implementing a 20c fee for plastic bags at certain retailers, there has been the introduction of eco-friendly packaging such as vegware and wooden utensils and adoption by many restaurants etc.

However, I am still scared for myself, for you and for future generations.

Take a challenge with me this week as we try to further reduce the amount of plastic entering daily life. How about say no to a straw at a restaurant or bar or when buying vegetables, don’t put them in a plastic bag or do a fun experiment next time you go to the food court or drive through. You may get some stink looks like I did but every little bit counts.

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Stay tuned for a video to accompany this post in the near future!

Safe seafood choices

Fish: friends or foes?

There are many benefits to eating fish including that it is loaded with important nutrients such as protein and vitamin D and that it contains the best source of omega – 3 fatty acids which are good for the heart and blood vessels.

It must be noted that numerous pollutants make their way into the foods we eat, from fruits and vegetables to eggs and meat. Fish are no exception. Mercury in fish is one of the main contaminants to avoid as very high levels of mercury can damage nerves in adults and disrupt development of the brain and nervous system in a fetus or young child.

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What else should you think about when buying and eating fish?

Some fish grow very slowly, which means that their populations do not recover quickly when faced by overfishing as they do not have a chance to reproduce. Fishing methods go a long way toward determining whether seafood is sustainable. Many types of commercial fishing gear can cause significant habitat destruction. As a general rule, hook and line is a low impact method of fishing which does not damage the seafloor and lets fishermen throw back the wrong species, usually in time for them to live. Longlines involve fishing lines that are often miles long with thousands of hooks and that can kill sea turtles and birds. Bottom trawlers are giant nets that scrape the ocean floor, killing everything in their path from sea urchins, coral and forage fish to 150-year old orange roughy, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.

Buying fish – what else do you need to know?

Get to know your fishers. Ask some of these questions and educate yourself on sustainable fishing practices.

  • What country is it from?
  • Is the fish in season or not?
  • Is the fish wild-caught or farm-raised?
  • If it is farmed, how was it grown? (Was it raised in a polluting open net pen or in a contained tank or pond?)
  • If it is wild, how was it caught?
  • Are populations of this fish healthy and abundant? (Small, fast-growing fish can withstand more fishing pressure, while large, slow-growing species are more vulnerable to overfishing.)
  • Are you really getting what you are told? Look out for fish fraud and mislabelling!

Furthermore when choosing fish, look for bright and clear eyes to help you know that it is fresh.

 

So now that you are hooked with a sea of general knowledge, it’s time to dive in to making choices about the fish more relevant in our region. Here are some general suggestions of the safer seafood and fish to eat in Barbados and the Caribbean. And by ‘safest’ fish to eat, you now know that I mean in terms of human health and sustainability for the sea.

Lionfish

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Lionfish are an invasive species and voracious predators that eat native fish and crustaceans in large quantities. They are not known to have any native predators and are equipped with venomous spines, which deter predators and can cause painful wounds to humans. They are capable of reproducing year-round and can lay up to 2 million eggs per year.  Lionfish is the ultimate sustainable choice and takes our top spot; once you cut off those spines, you are good to go! Lionfish are typically harvested by spearfishing, so is very selective and does not harm other species.

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Flying fish
Fast-growing, short-lived, fast-reproducing, and tasty. However, in the past few years including this one, the season has not been very good in Barbados. This has led to higher prices – $25 BBD for 10 fish!

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Image via http://www.agriculture.gov.bb

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Dolphin/mahi mahi
Not to be confused with the marine mammal. This fish is fairly resistant to fishing pressure, due to a remarkably fast growth rate. They can sexually mature as early as 6 months of age, and serially spawn (females appear to be in a constant state of egg production). Trends in Barbados in past years have been to catch juveniles as their numbers seemed to be on the increase with the influx of sargassum. However, we recommend taking species larger than 65cm. The recommended servings per month: 3 (kids) – 4+ (adults).

Wahoo

Wahoo is a fast-growing species, which means that under natural conditions, populations can handle a relatively high amount of fishing pressure.Wahoo are typically fished with hook-and-line, and pelagic longline gear, both of which are used at or near the surface. This means that wahoo fishing gear rarely comes in contact with the ocean floor, significantly reducing the risk of habitat destruction.It is recommended to have 1-2 servings per month.

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THINK TWICE before buying & eating

Lobster
They are overexploited in many parts of the Caribbean.

Tuna*
Pelagic longliners overfish tuna.

Canned tuna

Ask: what kind is it? All species of tuna have health and sustainability issues. Many scientists fear they are on the path to depletion. While there is no good tuna choice, some species are doing better than others. Varieties of albacore and skipjack tuna are the best choices. Some concerns over tuna include that much of the population of these predators has disappeared due to overfishing. And most canned tuna, even dolphin-free brands, is caught using destructive practices. Tuna also has high levels of mercury. Because of its popularity, it is the biggest source of the toxin in humans.

Conch
Slow-moving and easy to harvest, but there are now international concerns about declines in numbers of wild conch. However, farmed conch is available on some islands — ask first.

Barracuda

Concern: some fish may be contaminated with ciguatera toxin causing poisoning that can cause nausea, pain, cardiac and neurological symptoms in humans when ingested.

 Salmon

Nearly all Atlantic salmon is farmed. Industrial farmed salmon presents significant health concerns because it contains up to 10 times the amount of pollutants and chemical toxins as wild salmon. The fish are also given antibiotics and color additives to make them look appetizing. Salmon farming also can have major adverse effects on the environment.

Say NO to these species

Shark
Most sharks and rays reach sexual maturity at a late age and have few offspring which makes them extremely vulnerable to overfishing.  Many species contain a high mercury content and therefore especially pregnant women and children should avoid eating. Sharks maintain balance in the marine ecosystem and are worth more alive than dead!

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Shrimp
Shrimp tend to be caught by trawling, which means high levels of bycatch as well as causing damage to the marine environment. Trawling nets clear-cut the ocean floor, catching and killing endangered or overfished species such as sea turtles and sharks.

Parrotfish
These have been severely overfished in the Caribbean, putting the health of coral reef ecosystems in jeopardy. Potfish including parrotfish are a favourite of Bajans. Parrotfish are crucial in their role as herbivores in grazing the reefs.

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Is sushi safe? Sushi-lovers—particularly women of childbearing age—should choose pieces made with low-mercury fish, such as salmon.

By now, you are probably thinking , ” jeeze, what fish can I eat?”

Yes, fish can be a great dietary choice: It’s lower in calories and saturated fat than red meat and naturally higher in healthful omega-3 fatty acids. But wait—it can also contain mercury and other potentially harmful contaminants. The scale tips in favour of fish consumption but strike a balance and make sustainable choices – for you and the environment.

 

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Whale sharks – gentle giants of the Sea!

I had been told of a sighting of a whale shark the first weekend in February and then got sent a video the weekend after of another whale shark sighting in Barbados.  Immediately, I wished to find this whale shark but as a compromise at least I got to watch the great video of it – so close, yet so far. I finally tracked down the owner of the video and after sharing it on my page, it has over 100,000 views in 48 hours – wasn’t expecting that but embracing it and hoping that it has helped to spread some awareness and increase education on this species.

After seeing the response of excitement, fear and concern and being approached by local  media, I thought these reactions called for an entry with further information dedicated to whale sharks.

So let’s dive right in – what is a whale shark?

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Image via World Wildlife Fund.

Contrary to the first part of their name, they are not whales but belong to the same class as sharks (the chondrichtyhes – have skeletons made of cartilage in comparison to other fishes who have skeletons made of bone). Whale sharks:

  • Can grow up to 60ft, and weigh up to 24,000lbs
  • Usually found in tropical and temperate warm waters
  • Migrate long distances according to food availability and water temperature
  • Similar to the fingerprint of a human, the pattern of spots around the gill area are unique to each individual allowing researchers to identify individual sharks
  • Whale sharks most commonly filter feed on a wide variety of planktonic prey, such as small crustaceans as well as schooling fishes, and occasionally on tuna and squids
  • They have thousands (~3000) of tiny teeth (however they are not used in feeding).

The major threat to whale sharks is humans for harvesting of the animal for products such as their fins. Due to their size, slowness, long development time, and high value on international markets, the species is vulnerable to intentional fishing.

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Image via trackingsharks.com

Remember, when you enter the sea, you enter their home and as a visitor should respect them and their environment.

A whale shark in Barbados?!

Many describe whale sharks as the gentle giants of the sea. However, over the years I have heard them more often described as monsters by Bajans. Due to their large size, huge head and some prehistoric characteristics, I can see where they get this alternative and unfavourable name.

Whale sharks have been sighted in Barbadian waters over the years. Most sightings come from fishers who often travel many miles offshore. However, there have been sightings nearshore (within 3 miles) previous to this one (confirmed by pictures in 2010 & 2011). However, this does not mean that there have not been sightings since 2011; we may just not be aware of them so if you have ever seen a whale shark, please let me know.

It must be noted that the average individual will not be swimming where these sharks have been sighted and thus a great fear should not be ignited in Bajans when they go for their next swim on Sunday morning.

Since these fish are migratory and can be described as quite rare, their movements are quite often sporadic and unpredictable. In general, whale sharks live in tropical warm waters usually as solitary species but do migrate to spawning aggregations to feed. They  often move with tuna and migrate to areas of temporally available dense food that is usually zooplankton but in some sites fish eggs like in Mexico or Belize, where some of the most famous of these spawning aggregations can be found.

If you are lucky enough to encounter a whale shark from a boat; keep your distance, idle the boat, observe and respect them. It is very possible that they will approach the boat due to their curious nature or due to the attraction by the bubbles of the prop of the engine which mimic the movement and appearance of bait dashing around.

Please note that it is not advised to jump in the water with them. Even though they have a docile nature, they are large (very large), wild fish and you are entering their home so if provoked, they may react.

The local name for the whale shark is guinea shark due to the markings over its body which Bajans say make it look like a guinea fowl.The back and sides are marked with a unique ‘checkerboard’ pattern of light spots and transverse bars which can help to easily distinguish this fish. This spot pattern is a unique identifier like a finger or thumbprint and can help researchers to determine site fidelity, patterns of migration and population sizes.

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Image via scubafish.com

If a whale shark approaches you when in the water, do not touch, ride or chase the whale shark and keep at a safe distance. If possible, take a picture of the side of its body from its head to its first dorsal (upper) fin and upload it onto the global site whaleshark.org. Each whale shark has an individual fingerprint: the pattern of spots behind the gills on the left or right sides. If you get an image or video of their “print”, it can be matched to others already in a global database, or your whale shark might be completely new to the database.

These gentle giants of the sea are the largest living fish whose main threats are harvest by humans. They are a wonderful ambassador for the oceans and for other less iconic sharks and rays who are just trying to survive and all deserve our conservation efforts.

If you wish to know more information, report any whale shark or shark sightings, or see the video that has gone viral (ish), visit: Sharks in Barbados on facebook.

Zika Virus

 

Zika or the Zika virus (ZIKV): One of the most talked about four letter words of the year.

Zika fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, well known in the region for causing dengue and chikungunya. Some of the symptoms caused by ZIKV are mild fever, rash,  headaches, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis and malaise which occur about two to seven days after the mosquito vector bite and can last for another two to seven days. You can be bitten by an infected mosquito and have symptoms of all 3 of the above viral diseases!

The zika virus was first identified in rhesus monkeys in Uganda in 1947 so is older than the majority, if not all of you reading this post. There have been large outbreaks in French Polynesia in 2013 and more recently, some of the first cases in the Americas were identified in 2015 in Brazil (possibly around the time of the World Cup).

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Aedes egyptii mosquito image via VectorBase.

There are many myths surrounding the virus that have accompanied this most recent outbreak and the concern for potential neurological and auto-immune complications of Zika virus disease is increasing. As a result, some of the press are having a field day and reporting some inaccurate information whereas many travel warnings have been issued to countries in the region, including Barbados.

What is known thus far regarding the potential implications for pregnant women and children born with birth defects in Brazil is that there has been an increase in zika virus infections and an increase in babies born with microcephaly in northeast Brazil, where the largest outbreak is currently occurring. (Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly). However, this does not necessarily mean that ZIKV is causing these defects. Further research must be conducted in order to determine what effects zika virus may have on fetuses and whether there is a link between increased cases of zika and increased cases of babies born with microcephaly.

Now, onto Barbados and what you can do. There have been 3 tested and reported cases in Barbados. However, it is believed that many more do exist but since symptoms are mild, it can be treated at home and many people will not be tested, which is also quite costly. So what can you? In an ideal World: prevention is key.

Prevention. Each individual is responsible for themselves. Check if any water is lying around in pots or in your yard and empty these. Yes, we live in a warm country but wear long sleeved clothes; buy mosquito nets to act as barriers over bed when sleeping; try natural remedies and repellents.

However, if you do happen to experience some of the symptoms, there is not much you can do but rest and try not to infect others.

Treatment. There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Zika virus infection. Therefore, treatment for everyone, including pregnant women, is directed at alleviating symptoms. You can take medicines, such as acetaminophen or paracetamol, to relieve fever and pain but do not take aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen until dengue can be ruled (to reduce the risk of hemorrhage).

 

 

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The above are simply some notes that I took today at work during a Zika briefing; I have not changed professions to public health expert. For more accurate facts and information, both PAHO & WHO websites have a wealth of information (PAHO  WHO) as well as CDC.

Much is still unknown regarding the Zika virus (ZIKV) but what is known is that this goes beyond a public health issue and is already having great economic impacts with travel and health care. Imagine something so small with such impacts!