Prevent the next dengue epidemic

Saturday, 18 March 2023 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Starting from 2020 to much of last year, public health officials have had to focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and rightly so, given the dangers the virus posed to public health. By now much of the threat from the coronavirus has subsided due to the success of the vaccination program as well as public awareness but it is not a time to be complacent because there are other diseases that pose serious health risks lurking around. One of these is dengue fever which has been a consistent concern for health authorities for over two decades.

According to statistics available with the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry, cases reported within the first two and half months of the year numbered nearly 16,000. This is 4,000 more than the number of dengue cases recorded in the first three months of 2022. January and February recorded over 1,300 cases with 2,383 cases recorded till mid-March. The largest number of patients are from the Colombo and Gampaha districts as has been the case in most years with the Colombo city and its suburbs among the worst affected.

Dengue fever, a mosquito borne disease, is common in tropical countries and particularly in urbanised areas. It can turn deadly if it develops into a critical stage leading to Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever (DHF) which can result in death. After grappling with the increase in dengue fever cases in the country for over three decades, health authorities have been successful in managing patients so that a majority can recover fully but as contracting the disease once does not give immunity, there is a chance a person could contract the disease again and then face a more severe infection.

Given the seriousness of dengue fever, this disease needs more attention from both the public as well as public health officials. For the past three years, Public Health Inspectors (PHI) who shoulder the preventive work were stretched to the limit due to the pandemic and had to shift focus away from dengue and other preventable diseases and focus on the coronavirus. With the decline in the threat posed by COVID and given the alarming rise in the number of dengue cases, it is time to refocus their attention on dengue again.

This means visiting homes, workplaces, businesses and checking for mosquito breeding sites and educating the public that they have a crucial role to play in controlling the breeding of mosquitoes that not only cause dengue fever but also other diseases such as malaria and filariasis.

But while PHIs do their part, without public cooperation, the fight to control mosquito borne diseases will be a failure. Members of the public have to do their bit by cooperating with health authorities, keeping their immediate environs clean, disposing their garbage in a manner that there is no room for water to collect and making sure there are no potential mosquito breeding places within their homes.

The health sector, which is among the worst hit by the country’s economic crisis with shortages of medicines and other essential supplies, could be faced with a dengue epidemic unless immediate steps are taken to quell its spread. This means allocating the necessary funds for health authorities to carry out fumigation in neighbourhoods where the incidence of dengue cases are high, conduct site visits and take other preventive measures. 

Overall a collective effort in which both the health authorities and the public work hand in hand is needed if the country is to avoid a dengue epidemic which would put the already stretched health services under more duress.