News Releases

UWI Tackles Caribbean Emergency Response to Zika and Beyond

For Release Upon Receipt - March 18, 2016


Experts agree that the region needs better infrastructure and stronger health systems. Caribbean countries are not equipped to respond to the region’s next public health emergency, and must take urgent steps to coordinate national and regional emergency response strategies. That was the consensus among international experts and senior regional officials from across the Caribbean who met in Bridgetown, Barbados on March 4-5 for a Zika Symposium to discuss implementing a harmonised regional response to the Zika virus.

Immediately following the declaration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in February, that Zika had become global public health emergency, UWI Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles appointed a 13-member Regional Zika Task Force comprising University experts. One of his key strategic tools in executing his vision as Vice-Chancellor has been the expeditious establishment of specialised Task Forces which bring together multi-disciplinary experts to tackle myriad challenges affecting the region.

The Symposium in Barbados was led by the Regional Zika Task Force  and is part of The UWI’s ongoing effort to assist Caribbean nations to coalesce their separate national health emergency response plans into one regional collaborative, interdisciplinary and sustained approach to confront the virus. “We want to make use of this health emergency to strengthen what the University can do when there is an outbreak of this sort,” said Professor Clive Landis, who chairs the Task Force.

Discussions at the Symposium, centred on the immediate danger and long term consequences to the Caribbean caused by the increasing Zika threat. Angela Rose, an infectious disease epidemiologist at The UWI Cave Hill campus and a member of the Task Force, shared perspectives from her work in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak that affected Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. She recommended that effort be invested in strengthening basic national public health systems, adding “The reason that the Ebola outbreak posed such a challenge there was because there were serious pre-existing problems with the public health systems and infrastructure. They were extremely fragile.” She noted, “Caribbean countries should treat the Zika threat as a context to develop an all-hazard emergency response framework.”

In addition to underscoring the call for strengthening public health care systems, Task Force Chair, Professor Landis emphasised communication with respect to managing the virus. He stated, “The Barbados Symposium reached the same conclusion as a WHO symposium held in Geneva on March 7-9 — that current Aedes mosquito eradication measures have not been sufficiently effective at controlling dengue fever outbreaks. The Aedes is the same mosquito vector as for Zika and so it is recommended that ‘top down’ approaches be supplemented with 'bottom up' approaches to better empower individuals and communities to take charge of their own environments to eliminate mosquito breeding sites. The UWI Regional Zika Task Force’s sub group for communication and community engagement is working urgently to help inform Caribbean communities on the changing mosquito behaviours and adaptations to better identify and target new mosquito breeding sites."

The overarching issue of increasing national capacity echoed throughout several of the Symposium contributions over the two days. “Caribbean health systems must have sufficient capacity so that if there are outbreaks or threats, that we are prepared for that, with the relevant programmes, human resources, systems and equipment,” urged Eric van Gorp, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre, Holland and a member of the Task Force. “We also need clinical testing from Caribbean countries, because the answers that we get from other countries—Brazil or Suriname—do not always apply to Barbados or Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. So we have to develop that capacity within the region too," said van Gorp.

According to Vice-Chancellor Beckles, developing the region’s capacity is exactly what The UWI has set out to do. At a follow-up press conference to the Symposium on March 10, he noted that this response to Zika is The UWI becoming a more activist institution. He declared “The University is rolling out a strategy to face the many challenges affecting the people of the Caribbean region. This Zika virus Task Force is one of many others to come. The UWI is going to be aggressive in engaging all the challenges facing the Caribbean civilization.”

For more on The UWI’s response to the Zika virus, visit


About The UWI

Since its inception in 1948, The University of the West Indies (UWI) has evolved from a fledgling college in Jamaica with 33 students to a fully-fledged, regional University with over 50,000 students. Today, The UWI is the largest, most longstanding higher education provider in the Commonwealth Caribbean, with three physical campuses in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and an Open Campus. The UWI serves 17 English-speaking countries and territories in the Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, The British Virgin Islands, The Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos. The UWI’s faculty and students come from more than 40 countries and The University has collaborative links with 160 universities globally; it offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree options in Food and Agriculture, Engineering, Humanities and Education, Law, Medical Sciences, Science and Technology and Social Sciences. The UWI’s seven priority focal areas are linked closely to the priorities identified by CARICOM and take into account such over-arching areas of concern to the region as environmental issues, health and wellness, gender equity and the critical importance of innovation.

(Please note that the proper name of the university is The University of the West Indies, inclusive of the “The”, hence The UWI.)