Deadly but preventable
In early September last year, the Department of Health reported that 62,500 Filipinos had been downed by dengue fever since the beginning of the year. That number represented an 88-percent spike compared to the same period in 2009, with some 465 deaths already recorded across the country.
This year, the number of dengue patients since January is down to 45,333, or about 33.5 percent lower than the previous year’s figures. Fatalities have also been halved by 50 percent—267 from last year’s 465.
A success story? Hardly. While DoH records indicate that dengue cases have dropped across the country by a third, in the rest of Luzon the number has skyrocketed to a shocking 73 percent. Four regions, including Metro Manila, are in the grip of a dengue surge that is triple the number a year ago. Except for Marikina, all cities and one municipality in the metropolis have registered increases. In Malabon alone, the numbers are up by 90 percent—491 cases compared to 259 last year—though local officials there still insist there is nothing to worry about. “This present figure is higher compared to last year… but that does not mean that we have an outbreak,” said the city health officer, Isauro Garcia.
While one may appreciate the Malabon officials’ reluctance to cause needless panic by appearing panicky themselves over these numbers, a tad more sense of urgency and alarm in their pronouncements might, in fact, be the key to getting more people to pay attention to the problem. Certainly, if 491 people sick with and at risk of losing their lives from the mosquito-borne disease do not constitute an “outbreak” by technical definition, still they must constitute galvanizing proof that Malabon, one of Metro Manila’s perennially water-logged areas, needs to do some drastic rethinking about its environs and the way of life of its people if the disease’s deadly visitation there is to be stopped.
That goes as well for all the cities and municipalities in the country, since virtually every corner drenched by rain and left with stagnant water is in danger of becoming a breeding ground for the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. So far, dengue hotspots identified by the DoH now include, aside from Metro Manila, several towns in the provinces of Ilocos Sur, La Union, Pampanga, Bataan and Pangasinan. Western and Eastern Visayas have reported a decline in cases, but there is no guarantee that stroke of luck would hold, given that the country is in the middle of an exceedingly erratic meteorological season where non-stop rains coupled with brief bursts of sunny weather in between can foment new dengue onslaughts in a flash (the warm temperature aids the growth of mosquito larvae in dormant pools of water).
At any rate, luck has nothing to do with any successful attempt to minimize, if not entirely eliminate, the threat of this scourge. Unlike more exotic diseases such as the A(H1N1) virus, whose brief appearance two years ago triggered a worldwide pandemic alert and, locally, an extraordinarily high-level effort at information dissemination and prevention, dengue fever has been around for far too long that its seasonal outbreaks no longer command the same level of public attention. Only when the fatalities have reached critical mass—itself a fuzzy, inchoate benchmark; 491 cases in Malabon, after all, is still “no reason to raise the alarm”—do the actual alarm bells ring, and the airwaves are once again roused into a frenzy.
What’s so lamentable about any death from dengue is that it is an easily preventable disease, requiring no expensive recourse to top-flight technology or scientific know-how to stop. The most basic way to fight the disease starts at home: by draining out all possible breeding grounds of mosquitoes; ensuring self-protection by using mosquito nets, repellents and protective clothing; and seeking immediate medical attention, instead of resorting to self-medication, when signs and symptoms akin to influenza appear, to avoid ending up with a more potentially lethal strain of the virus.
Local governments must do their part by conducting comprehensive information campaigns and clean-up drives in their communities, and availing themselves of tools such as the newly developed anti-dengue mosquito trap (the government says an initial batch of some 81,000 is ready to be distributed to afflicted communities) to help stamp out the disease.
More than giving out smooth reassurances at a time like this, Malacañang, the DoH and the local governments need, in fact, to speak more loudly and act more quickly—because no one really needs to die of dengue.
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