Forget swine flu: dengue is spreading
Swine flu has been dominating the headlines for the past fortnight, but Queensland health authorities are struggling with another threat which also sees patients present with flu-like symptoms.
Health officials have confirmed that the outbreak of dengue fever in the state’s north is now the worst in 50 years.
Since December more than 900 cases of the current type three outbreak have been reported, and there has been one death.
And new research suggests it is not just people living in north Queensland who need to be worried.
Tracey Young is at the forefront of the fight against dengue fever in Cairns. She had just started a new project with the local Tropical Population Health Service when she came down with the very disease she was employed to prevent.
“When I first found out I had dengue fever, [I was] having very severe pain behind my eyes,” she said.
“And I did think at the time that I might have eye strain; I wear glasses. And that night, very, very quickly I became very flushed in the face and very hot, and the headache got worse, and I didn’t sleep.
“After that I had three days of not being able to sleep at all. The fever is so intense that your mind just doesn’t stop.
“Probably about four or five days later I developed a very, very sore rash over my joints and my body, and then the pain started in the joints, specifically the knees and ankles.
“And it really does feel like someone is jamming a red hot poker into your joints. It’s extremely painful.”
War against mosquitos
Queensland Health Medical entomologist Brian Montgomery says north Queensland is in the grip of the worst dengue epidemic in decades.
“What we have in north Queensland, in particular Cairns at the moment, is we’ve just reached the milestone of 901 cases, which is in excess of the previous large outbreak in 1992-93 in Townsville and Charters Towers,” he said.
“[It] basically marks this as the most significant outbreak since the mid-1950s.”
Back in the 1950s, 15,000 people in Townsville were infected with the viral disease, a situation health authorities do not want to see repeated.
Since this current dengue outbreak was declared in December, Queensland Health has been waging war against mosquitoes.
Throughout the state’s north, officials have visited tens of thousands of properties and cleared more than 100,000 mosquito breeding sites.
They have been visiting homes and workplaces and spraying surfaces in what Mr Montgomery says is a desperate attempt to eradicate the disease.
“We’ve had a very busy year this year with imports of dengue into north Queensland; as it stands, I think we’ve had about 17 recorded,” he said.
“What we’re seeing globally is dengue is becoming more and more of a problem, and the flow-on effect of that is that north Queensland, where dengue mosquitoes are present all year round, will remain at risk each year.”
But according to newly published research by Dr Nigel Beebe from the University of Queensland, it is not just people living in north Queensland who should be concerned.
He warns that installing rainwater tanks in urban backyards could see the dengue virus spreading to cities throughout Australia by 2050.
“We found that the installation of water tanks in our major capital cities as a tool for drought-proofing our cities was producing a risk of dengue mosquito getting back into some of these regions, and actually getting further south,” he said.
“And this would produce, in the summer months, transmission risks for dengue.”
It is a risk Mr Montgomery at Queensland Health is well aware of.
“Certainly the need to have rainwater storage devices in homes needs to be balanced with the realisation that down the track there will be a requirement that they will need to be monitored and repaired to ensure that the dengue mosquito, which was previously more widely distributed outside of Queensland, doesn’t get a toehold and start to move southward again,” he said.