Thursday, 19 June 2014 00:00
Dengue. A word that strikes fear because it describes one of the most dreaded diseases in Sri Lanka. During the last six months of this year, 14,703 suspected dengue cases have been reported to the Epidemiology Unit under the Health Ministry from all over the island. Approximately 59.62% of dengue cases were reported from the Western Province. The highest numbers of dengue cases were reported during the 22nd week of 2014. The numbers cast massive questions about the Government’s dengue policies and whether they are sufficiently far-reaching. The numbers say no.
Sri Lanka appointed the Presidential Task Force on Dengue Prevention in 2010 following much public criticism as patient numbers soared. The outbreak hit hardest in the Western Province where rampant urbanisation has created the perfect breeding group for dengue mosquitoes. Schools were closed and parents lived in daily fear of their children coming down with fever.
Yet, the panic did not result in regulations that had long-term impact. Just two years later the number of dengue victims hit 44,456 – the highest tally since 2010. Again the Government responded to public pressure by introducing the National Dengue Prevention Act, which makes unwittingly creating dengue breeding grounds a punishable offense.
Sri Lanka is not alone in taking this road. In the Pakistani province of Sindh, the regional government has taken a hardline against dengue. Last year it introduced its Sindh Prevention and Control of Dengue Regulation 2013, which obliges everyone – from public officials to ordinary members of the public – to take responsibility for dengue. Failure to comply with the legislation can result in severe penalties.
It’s a radical approach, driven by concern over nearly 5,000 cases of dengue reported in the province during 2013. But is the threat of legal action enough to make people use insecticide or empty pots that could turn into mosquito breeding grounds. Will fear of a fine make doctors report suspected dengue cases within an hour?
Sindh is not the only province to use legislation to fight dengue: Punjab province takes its anti-dengue regulation so seriously that failure to comply with it is a non-bailable offence. It’s a trend that can be seen all over the world: in Venezuela, there are calls to fine hospitals that fail to report cases of dengue. But the disease continues to thrive.
In Sri Lanka, despite increased public awareness, dengue remains a serious and sometimes fatal urban health problem. With 32,063 dengue cases in 2013, it is clear that efforts made thus far remain largely ineffectual. A frustrated Government has thrown many initiatives at the disease, including the Army, deploying patrols to frighten people into compliance, but these have all been stopgap measures. People remain under the heel of the epidemic’s natural cycle with one year ending only to find fresh patients a few months later.
Regardless of intense media coverage, there also seems to be little citizen interest in stemming the disease. There are no calls from the public at large for a sustained policy measure that reaches deep into all parts of the country, well-funded and long-term. In the absence of such sustained public pressure, it is unlikely the Government will change its current knee-jerk reactions.