'Dengue Kills Too' - Latin America Faces Two Epidemics

20 May 2020

The coronavirus is killing thousands and commanding government attention across Latin America. But another deadly viral infection remains a problem for the region: dengue.

Dengue, which is spread by mosquitoes, has been called "breakbone fever" for the severe physical pain it causes.

Doctors and health officials are concerned about the effect of COVID-19, the breathing disorder caused by the virus, on Latin American countries. They say COVID-19's arrival has pulled attention and resources away from the fight against dengue.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) expects 2020 to be marked by high rates of dengue across the region.

Around the world, COVID-19 has affected other diseases in different ways. In Europe, measures to stop the coronavirus have banished seasonal influenza. But in Africa, border closures have stopped transportation of measles vaccines and other supplies.

In Latin America, a dengue epidemic that started in late 2018 is still present. Dengue infections in the region rose sharply to an all-time high of 3.1 million in 2019, with over 1,500 deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean. That information comes from PAHO.

Cases of the disease should begin to decrease in the second half of 2020, the organization said.

Dengue epidemics usually happen every three to five years and with four strains of dengue in existence, people may catch it more than once. Second cases are more likely to be severe.

"COVID is the star right now, so all of the attention is being put on COVID," said Jaime Gomez. "But there are still problems with dengue." He is a doctor and works at a hospital in Floridablanca, in Colombia's Santander province.

An Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen through a microscope at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation laboratory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
An Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen through a microscope at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation laboratory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Dengue is not usually deadly and can be treated with painkillers. But some sufferers deal with long-term problems like tiredness, weight loss, and depression. And these things affect their ability to work. Severe dengue is treated with intravenous fluids and those who do not get tested are at risk of dangerous health problems.

Such treatments cannot be given if patients stay home, worried about getting the coronavirus, or if crowded hospitals cannot take dengue patients.

There are not many cases of COVID-19 in the part of Colombia where Gomez works. He told Reuters news agency he had seen hospitalizations decrease by half, as people were fearful of going outdoors.

‘System has collapsed'

Sonia Fernandez is a lawyer from Paraguay. She avoided seeking medical care when she and her two daughters, ages 11 and 8, got sick with dengue at the beginning of April. Fernandez wanted to avoid individuals with COVID-19, she said.

All three have since recovered.

Dengue cases in Paraguay have sharply risen this year. In the first 18 weeks of 2020, the country reported more than 40,000 confirmed cases and more than 60 deaths. That is compared to under 400 confirmed cases and six deaths during the same period in 2019.

In Ecuador, the coronavirus outbreak has hit hard. Hospitals in Guayaquil, the largest city, are full. The number of dengue cases has dropped nationwide, but this could cover up other issues.

Ecuador's health ministry notes that dengue cases were highest at close to 900 in the week ending March 14. That is two weeks after the country confirmed its first case of COVID-19. For the week of April 4, they fell to around 250.

Esteban Ortiz is an international health researcher at the University of the Americas in Quito.

He says dengue cases are being under-reported.

"Cases haven't decreased, the diagnosis of cases has decreased, which confirms the system has totally collapsed," he said.

Ecuador's health ministry said that the country was no more exposed to the double effects of COVID-19 and dengue than any other Latin American country. It added it has the supplies it needs to treat cases of dengue.

Dengue has also increased sharply in Central America. In Costa Rica, cases have risen nearly 200 percent through May 1, compared with a year ago, to over 2,000.

Rodrigo Marin is director of Costa Rica's health surveillance agency. He told Reuters that while his country is having a difficult time dealing with COVID-19, other diseases continue to spread.

In Panama, dengue has caused at least two deaths this year. Speaking with Reuters, Panama City health official Yamileth Lopez said that "Dengue kills too."

I'm Alice Bryant.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

region - n. a part of a country or world that is different or separate from other parts in some way

mosquito - n. a small flying insect that bites the skin of people and animals and sucks their blood

resource - n. a supply of something that someone has and can use when it is needed

banish - v. to get rid of something

epidemic - n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people

strain - n. a group of closely related plants, animals or germs

intravenous - adj. entering the body through a vein

diagnosis - n. the act of identifying a disease, illness, or problem by examining someone or something

expose - v. to reveal something hidden

surveillance - n. the act of carefully watching something especially in order to prevent or detect something