Warning of an increased risk of deadly mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever sweeping across South Asian countries ravaged by last month’s tsunami, the United Nations health agency issued an urgent appeal today for $67 million to ward off a potentially severe public health crisis over the next six months.
With stagnant water creating favourable breeding conditions for the insects, the World Health Organization (WHO) has deployed experts and set up early warning and surveillance systems while public health laboratory services are being restored including provision of rapid diagnostic kits, medical supplies and equipment, and training of local health workers.
“Proper management of dengue hemorrhagic fever can reduce fatality rates and save many lives,” WHO’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia Samlee Plianbangchang said of the endemic disease, where rapid diagnosis and early treatment can make the difference between life and death. Unless proper treatment is given promptly, the patient may go into shock and die.
Dengue fever and malaria are endemic to virtually all areas throughout the region except the Maldives, and with the rainy season now starting, particularly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the countries worst-hit by the tsunami, a rise in cases can be expected at this time of year.
Given the extent of destruction due to the tsunami, WHO and the Indonesian Ministry of Health are concerned about the increased risk of dengue in Aceh, where the tsunami brought more death and destruction than anywhere else, and are monitoring the situation. Concerns for malaria remain high, too.
“At present, we are dealing with a lot of unknowns because of the violent environmental changes that have taken place here,” WHO malaria expert Jack Chow said during a visit to Aceh today. “For example, we do not know whether mosquitoes – which generally mostly live and bite outdoors – will start biting indoors more frequently. We have to monitor for these situations and support the communities so they are protected from disease, and have access to treatment when they need it.”
WHO is providing insecticide-treated bed-nets, vector control supplies, and equipment for killing larvae and fogging with insecticides as a stopgap measure, as well as looking to longer-term control steps such as help in establishing proper drainage systems. Dengue fever is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a day-time biting insect, hence the utility of the bed-nets is very limited as a specific prevention tool.