Zika Fighter: Kerri-Ann Guyah
Kingston, Jamaica: A graduate from the University of West Indies with a Bachelor of Science in Experimental Biology and a Master of Science in Forensic Science, Kerri-Ann Guyah has built her career in environmental health and safety. As ZAP Jamaica’s Vector Control and Environmental Compliance Manager for the Zika AIRS Project (ZAP), Guyah recently talked about her experience with Zika and her role on the project. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development, ZAP helps countries to tackle Zika and other vector-borne diseases through vector control management and awareness raising.
ZAP: Have you had any experience with mosquito-borne disease?
Guyah: In 2014, my entire family fell ill with the chikungunya virus which led to lasting health impacts particularly in the case of my mother who is currently struggling to regain full mobility in her right hand since contracting the virus. Unfortunately a similar fate occurred in 2016 where my family again fell ill, however this time with the Zika virus. Prior to these events, my father had a bout with dengue. The opportunity that arose with ZAP was perfect for me as it integrated environmental compliance and vector control.
ZAP: What is your role with the project?
Guyah: I am the Vector Control and Environmental Compliance Manager; however I oversee all field-based activities within the project to include the entomological surveillance teams. It’s everything I wanted in a job: managing people, learning more about vector-borne diseases and contributing to the vector control program in my country.
This project has been a life-changer for me. I never dreamed that I’d be at the Smithsonian Museum representing my country or presenting in Honduras. I’ve held management positions, but I’ve never been able to enact change from a human health and environmental health perspective on a larger scale. Before I was localized to a specific company. Now I can see change in a country.
ZAP: What surprised you most about working for ZAP?
Guyah: The myths, misconceptions and conspiracy theories surrounding mosquito-borne diseases. I did not recognize how little people knew about mosquitoes. We’ve lived among mosquitoes all our lives but persons are not familiar with the facts around them such as how they breed, different species of mosquitoes with different behavioral patterns and the fact that not all species of mosquitoes carry disease. Some persons even believe that mosquitoes carrying disease are lab engineered to wipe out black people. We had to break down these barriers to allow people to understand that mosquitoes are vectors that can transmit disease and that this is not a new thing. We’ve been changing the mindset of people and shifting their beliefs from conspiracy theories to actual facts, from fear to reality, and imparting on people to take control of their own homes and do their own vector control outside of government interventions or ZAP. Through our active efforts, communications strategies and youth empowerment, including our talks at schools, churches and specific community groups, we are able to really achieve success and see the sustainability of the project.
ZAP: What do you wish people knew about the project?
Guyah: We are a meaningful avenue for youth empowerment and value youth as agents of change. We partner with the government to build capacity in youth that will increase their employment opportunities after the end of the project.
ZAP: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Guyah: The most challenging aspect of the job is people management. Dealing with people of different races, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, sexual orientation and getting them all to work as a team is the part that I absolutely love. I’m a people person by nature. I feel a real sense of accomplishment in seeing someone start the job not fully equipped with the skills in their work and seeing them progress and transition to an exemplary citizen of Jamaica. We have people working from economically depressed areas who have never held a steady job and have no idea what a workplace setting would be. They are rebels because they’ve been taught to be rebels. I enjoy seeing them evolve into workers who are focused and disciplined.
ZAP: What is your hope for the project?
Guyah: I hope that at the end of the project the government adopts critical pieces of our program. We’ve established two insectaries that are fully furnished with equipment so they can continue to do entomological surveillance, which should guide their vector control interventions. We’ve trained and improved the knowledge base of the people. We are increasing institutional capacity. Because we jointly work with the University of the West Indies, we have an avenue for persons to come and learn more about mosquitoes.