Need to beat dengue threat
With the ranks of officialdom being preoccupied with power games, and the nation and her people enthralled by an over-dose of politics, a silent killer is on the prowl, striking terror in homes around the country. We know and hear of so many cases; an infant here, a bright young student in another area, elsewhere an older man or woman.

The stories are tragic and heartbreaking. Days of continuous fever, followed by hospitalization, a battery of blood tests and then, sometimes, the final death-blow. The fact that dengue is preventable, that simple measures could have preempted the tragedy, makes these deaths doubly difficult to accept.

The rains have come and gone but the dreaded dengue which has been hitting the headlines for the past three to four months causing fear and panic among the public, particularly among parents of young children has stayed with us.

At the last count, the dengue toll was 38 lives with 5,800 receiving treatment for the disease. The problem is particularly acute in urban areas, Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy and Kurunegala being the worst hit. And though the dengue outbreak has been recorded every year, the figures this year show a marked increase. Doctors fear that it is now just short of an epidemic.

Hospitals both state and private are overflowing with suspected dengue victims and are hard pressed to cope. Why hasn't the government declared this outbreak of dengue an epidemic? Is it because drastic control measures would then have to be put in place and this would be a further drain on the government coffers? Or is it that life is considered cheap in this part of the world, and the government's attention is primarily to survive in office, and to hell with what they do in office.

A senior consultant surgeon at the National Hospital, Dr. M.M. Janapriya highlights this very issue in our columns this week (see Plus page 10), and says that as long as this current outbreak of the disease is not officially declared an epidemic, there is no need for the central health authorities or the Epidemiological Department of the Ministry of Health to do anything despite the remorseless progression of the epidemic. The official inaction may be because these measures cost money, he surmises.

That dengue needs to be fought and fought on all fronts is without question. Its devastating toll on human lives and the suffering of so many must not be allowed to continue. The answer may lie in greater measures of prevention. Then the government may, in fact, be able to save not only lives but also some of the money it now requires to treat dengue victims in intensive care units.

For a country that has been grappling with dengue for several years now, the question being asked is why have we not been able to put into action a solid preventive plan?

Municipal authorities have been stressing the importance of keeping one's environs clean to prevent the spread of the dengue mosquito. They have gone on the offensive, saying that householders, in many cases flat dwellers and eating houses, are largely to blame for their apathy. Starting today to July 3 has been designated Dengue Control Week by the Colombo Municipality.

What of the other local authorities? While public clean-up campaigns are no doubt needed, the authorities islandwide should be going a step further, to ensure that their services function efficiently. Most urban dwellers have a huge problem in disposing of their garbage. Drains in public areas are also not just an eyesore but a health hazard as well. Public complaints about blocked drains in their neighbourhoods for instance, do not elicit a quick response from the authorities. Hot-lines given don't even get answered..

Dengue is now endemic in this country and can no longer be seen as a threat only during the monsoon season. What we need then is a concerted countrywide campaign by all local bodies to eradicate this mosquito. Regular fogging campaigns, proper garbage disposal and cleaning of drains should be carried out throughout the year and not only when the alarm is raised about another dengue epidemic.

Schools would be a good place to start. If children were taught from a very early age the importance of nudging the elders in keeping their environs clean, we would not be facing the problems we have today.

As the dengue death toll mounts, the need of the hour surely is total focus by even a Presidential Task Force of medical authorities and public health officials, and the police that could swiftly and efficiently co-ordinate an islandwide effort to battle dengue and equally importantly tackle the problem long-term. Sri Lanka has been hailed a model on many fronts in the health sector, our population control, immunization programmes, etc being widely commended. Dengue could well be another success story if the authorities mobilize all their resources at their disposal. The government needs to heed the public's cry for help.

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