In Sri Lanka, a massive campaign has been launched by the government to raise awareness about dengue fever, which is now seen as a national priority. Reported cases over the last decade peaked in 2009. And this year, the number of cases is running even higher up till the end of July, with 24,250 people being infected compared to 22,256 in the same period last year.
The disease has symptoms very similar to severe flu and can easily cause death through a complication called dengue haemorrhagic fever. Dengue fever is spread by the bite of infected female mosquitoes. Worldwide, there are an estimated 50 million cases of dengue fever annually. Most of those infected live in Africa and southeast Asia, where the disease is particularly prevalent and is the leading cause of death among children in certain Asian countries.
The Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka has made the third week of August ‘national dengue prevention week’. The campaign is being advertised on billboards, TV and through the schools, where children are learning the importance of keeping home and community spaces tidy. This is because the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which carry the disease throughout Asia breed mainly in man-made containers, such as metal drums and concrete cisterns used for water storage. But any waste items, however small, such as plastic food containers and jars, or larger items such as old car tyres, provide ideal breeding grounds.
Children and their parents are being urged to make special efforts to clear and clean areas which might offer breeding opportunities for the mosquitoes. An official from the Health Ministry’s Epidemiology Unit felt that with public health, as well as the involvement of the military and police, the spread of the disease can be controlled.
Radio and TV broadcasts are also giving the public advice about how to spot the early signs of infection. At some schools, teachers are also being asked to conduct an awareness campaign among their students, even in areas where no deaths from dengue fever have so far been reported. But extra vigilance will be needed as the rainy seasons approach, when standing water collects easily.
The World Health Organization says that currently there is no vaccine or drug treatment effective against dengue fever, which is why the only way to combat the disease is to try and limit the numbers of mosquitoes.
Scientists in the US are working on ways which may prove effective on a large scale, by introducing genetically-altered female mosquitoes which would be unable to fly.
The idea is to introduce the flightless females to the native population by distributing thousands of modified eggs. Though the male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which hatch would be unaffected, the daughters of these males would have a defective wing muscle, limiting the numbers of female mosquitoes able to infect the human population.
But while possible future breakthroughs are being trialled and tested, governments like Sri Lanka must rely on the vigilance and co-operation of their citizens to help control this killer disease.