The health and welfare of children in Jamaica was the focus of considerable concern in 2011. According to a 2011 survey from the National Health Council on Drug Abuse, high school students on the island are subject to suicidal thoughts, stress, and risk of being bullied. They drink alcohol and smoke tobacco and report feeling lonely. Many are overweight and unhealthy and do not feel that their parents understand their problems.
Betty Ann Blaine, child advocate and founder of Hear the Children’s Cry, said that cases of child rape are increasing in number in Jamaica, but many perpetrators go unpunished. Blaine attributed the lack of prosecutions to cultural attitudes that promote sex with young girls, plus the fact that families are frequently paid by gang members to have sex with their female children. Families may hide sexual abuse to avoid bringing shame upon their members as well. Child advocates and social workers noted that children in Jamaica often lived in poverty, were poorly educated, and were especially vulnerable to the risk of rape, violence, unwanted pregnancy, or human trafficking. Efforts to help children facing these conditions included those by Claudette Pious, the founder of Children First, who attempts to reform street children through the dramatic arts. The deaths of children due to AIDS/HIV in Jamaica have been reduced by early planning efforts that provide necessary treatment and medications. Since the 1990s when these efforts began, there has been a 31 percent reduction in the number of children’s death due to the disease.
Some particularly vulnerable inner-city youths were given the chance to better their lives by entering the job market through a program sponsored by the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica Inter-American Development Bank. The program allowed 100 young people aged 16 to 29 to use “microfranchises” to enter the market and create sustainable work opportunities for youth in eight communities in the Corporate Area.
The National Family Planning Board countered the perception that Jamaican women have more children than they can adequately care for. Dianne Thomas, director of the agency’s outreach programs, reported a downward trend in the childbirth rate per woman in Jamaica between the 1970s and 2011. At that time, the average Jamaican woman had six or seven children. And while birth control may be the reason for the reduction in birthrate, many women must resort to illegal means to obtain it. Jamaica’s Ministry of Health discovered that some Jamaican women use the drug Cytotec in order to abort unwanted pregnancies. The drug was developed to prevent stomach ulcers, but is widely used to induce labor in pregnant women and to terminate unwanted pregnancies. The Ministry intends to impose a policy that will limit access to this drug to physicians and hospital consultants.
Jamaica’s health authorities expressed concern about the growing number of suicides on the island during the first five months of the year. There were 24 cases of suicide during this period, compared to 12 in the first five months of 2010. Over 90 percent of the cases involved individuals with serious mental health issues, and authorities urged anyone with significant symptoms of depression or another mental disorder to seek medical aid as soon as possible.
Psychological research by Jamaican psychiatrist Frederick Hickling and clinical psychologist Vanessa Paisley resulted in some criticism and even outrage. Hickling and Paisley found that 40 percent of the population in Jamaica suffers from some type of personality disorder. This represents over 1 million adults and could be the reason for the high crime rate in Jamaica. Anthony Johnson, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, took issue with the study, noting that Jamaicans are among the happiest people in the world.
Community Health Issues
Local medical professionals at the University of the West Indies became concerned about several types of free-living amoebae (FLA), which can infect the central nervous systems of humans and other animals with deadly consequences. FLAs were first discovered in Australia in the 1960s and have spread to 15 other countries since then, with cases of infection increasing yearly.
While Jamaicans know that skin-bleaching may lead to skin cancer, they continue doing it. Many use over-the-counter products in hopes of lightening their skin tone, which they believe will lead to a better life. Poorer individuals often turn to the less expensive, and more dangerous, products available on the black market. Many of these products are imported from West Africa. The long-term use of skin-bleaching products has been linked to ochronosis, a condition that causes dark blotches to appear on the skin.
Professor Rainford Wilks of the University of the West Indies (UWI) is concerned about the large amount of salt used by Jamaicans. According to Wilks, this is an important health issue that must be addressed because the country faces a major epidemic of cardiovascular disease. Reducing salt intake could have a beneficial impact on the spread of the disease.
Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management warned that more than 300 communities on the island are highly vulnerable to damage from natural disasters. Fifty-six of these communities are participating in a project that will aid in improving the ability of these communities to mitigate and/or manage a natural disaster should one occur.