‘Unprecedented’ outbreak of dengue fever plagues Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is facing an "unprecedented" outbreak of deadly dengue fever, with 296 deaths recorded and over 100,000 cases reported in 2017 alone, according to the Red Cross.

(CNN) — Sri Lanka is facing an “unprecedented” outbreak of deadly dengue fever, with 296 deaths recorded and over 100,000 cases reported in 2017 alone, according to the Red Cross.

The international aid organization, formally known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), is increasing its emergency assistance across Sri Lanka to help contain the spread of the mosquito-borne disease, a press release says.

As many as 103,000 cases have been reported in the island nation this year — almost twice as many as were reported in all of 2016 and more than 4.3 times higher than the average number of cases for the same period between 2010 and 2016.

Hospitals across the country are at breaking point and have been forced to turn away patients suffering from the disease as they struggle with the intake. Particularly hard hit is the country’s Western Province, which accounts for almost half of Sri Lanka’s infections.

More than 1190 Army personnel have been deployed in response to the outbreak.

“Island-wide Army troops will continue the campaign throughout the month until the incidence of Dengue is eradicated from all corners of the island,” said a press release from the Sri Lankan militray.

Delayed medical attention has been the leading cause for deaths arising from dengue, Ali Akram, of the National Hospital in Colombo told CNN earlier in July.

The spread of the deadly viral disease is attributed to heavy monsoon rains, piles of rain-soaked garbage, standing pools of water and other mosquito larvae breeding grounds, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

More than half of the country’s districts have been affected by heavy rains and flooding, and impoverished areas are most at risk, says Gerhard Tauscher, IFRC’s operations manager in Sri Lanka.

“Dengue tends to seek out the poor who live in densely populated places where sanitation is inadequate, rubbish piles up, water pools and mosquitoes thrive,” he said in a statement.

Growing problem

Dengue is endemic in Sri Lanka, and the last major outbreak — in 2009 — saw 25,000 infections and 249 deaths.

Priscilla Samaraweera, of the Sri Lankan National Dengue Control Unit, told CNN earlier that healthcare workers are struggling to combat the virus, which is more infectious and fatal than other strains that have hit the Asian nation in previous years.

The disease, which is mainly transmitted by a type of mosquito (Aedes aegypti) — the same type of mosquito that carries the Zika and Chikungunya viruses — is found in tropical and subtropical climates worldwide. Symptoms include fever, severe headache, rashes and pain behind the eyes, muscle and joint pain.

The spread of the disease, which manifests itself in flu-like symptoms and can develop into a deadly complication called severe dengue, also known as dengue hemorrhagic fever, has grown “dramatically” in recent decades, according to the WHO.

Over half of the world’s population live in dengue endemic areas and there are as many as 390 million infections annually.

Major contributing factors to its rise include climate change, urbanization, poor sanitation control, according to Kym Blechynden, Regional Emergency Health Coordinator for IFRC Asia Pacific.

Higher humidity and temperatures mean mosquitoes can survive longer, increasing the likelihood for transmitting diseases and being able to travel to a wider geographic range.

It is a leading cause of serious illness and death among children in some developing countries, and half the world’s population is at risk.

Prevention

In Sri Lanka IFRC teams have been assisting with hospitalizations, and also by providing public education on the causes and prevention of the disease.

“But the disease can be stopped in its tracks when affected communities are informed about prevention and treatment, have access to medical care and mobilize to clean up their environment. That’s what our teams are focusing on,” Tauscher added.

The IFRC focuses on community education and prevention — teaching communities how to destroy breeding sites and avoid bites, as well as making sure vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women are educated and protected, said Blechynden.

In addition to the ideal conditions for dengue-carrying mosquitoes to thrive, the virus is the Dengue Serotype Two, a strain that is uncommon in Sri Lanka, according to Blechynden.

A government-backed four-day intensive clean-up drive, involving “tens of thousands of volunteers and security personnel,” is scheduled to begin Friday, according to the state-owned Daily News.

First reported in Sri Lanka in 2009, it has been detected only infrequently since, meaning that the population hasn’t been exposed to it as much as other strains.