Alarm as dengue cases rise in SE Asia

By Ho Binh Minh, HANOI, Reuters

Vietnam and Malaysia have raised concerns over the spread of dengue fever, which has killed hundreds in Southeast Asia and infected tens of thousands this year.

Warmer weather and heavy rains have helped the mosquito-borne virus spread through the region, with a Malaysian official saying the epidemic could get worse because of global warming.

“It is partly due to global warming. We are going to see a rise in vector-borne and water borne diseases,” Ramlee Rahmat, deputy director-general of health, was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times on Saturday.

Vietnam’s health minister said he was worried about the spreading outbreak, citing 27 deaths this year and a jump in the number of cases.

“The risk of the dengue epidemic outbreak in southern and central provinces is very high in the coming time,” Health Minister Tran Thi Trung Chien told the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper.

Some experts have said 2007 could be the worst year on record for the disease, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

There is no treatment for dengue, which can cause severe fever, headaches, rashes and muscle and joint pain. A more severe form can cause haemorrhagic fever.

Dengue infected 24,255 Vietnamese in the first half of this year, up 23 percent from a year earlier, and 19,000 of them live in southern provinces, Chien said.

The Health Ministry had also sought government approval to include dengue prevention in a national program that targets social, dangerous diseases along with HIV/AIDS for the period until 2010, Chien said.

Last month, Cambodia appealed for international help to fight dengue, which has killed more children early in this year’s wet season than in all of the last.

In Malaysia, 1,044 cases were reported last week, topping the 1,000 mark for the second time in a month, signalling an epidemic, the New Straits Times said.

The disease has so far claimed 56 lives in Malaysia, compared with 46 deaths in the first half of 2006.

In Indonesia, where concerns over bird flu more frequently grab headlines, dengue saw a dramatic peak earlier this year after much of the Jakarta area was flooded.

By the end of June, there had been 93,352 cases and 998 deaths this year, according to Indonesian Health Ministry data given to Reuters on Saturday. In January, 298 people died, falling to nine in June after the end of the rainy season.

“Generally, the trend of cases in those months is decreasing but still high,” said Sholah Imari, head of a ministry team tacking dengue, referring to the January-June cases.

In Singapore, the government has been waging a battle against the Aedes mosquito, running a sweeping education campaign to urge residents to eliminate standing water, which the mosquitoes use to breed.

Despite the efforts, hundreds of new infections have been reported weekly since May.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization said rising temperatures had driven a surge in dengue fever cases in Asia.

In Singapore, the mean annual temperature rose to 28.4 degrees Celsius (83 degrees Fahrenheit) in 1998 from 26.9 Celsius in 1978, contributing to a more than 10-fold increase in dengue cases over the two decades.