World Health Day 2014: Small bite, big threat

Small things can cause big problems, such as the tiny mosquito transmitting dengue in Fiji right now. World Health Day is celebrated each year on 7 April and this year, the theme is vector-borne diseases: “Small bite – big threat”. While this can be frightening to think about, there is a lot you can do to protect yourself and your family.

Big diseases carried by small creatures

Vectors are small organisms such as mosquitoes, bugs, and ticks that can carry disease from person to person and place to place. The illnesses they carry are called vector-borne diseases. They can put our health at risk, at home and when we travel.

Dengue

Dengue fever is a severe, flu-like illness. It is very familiar to most of us these days, due to the current outbreak. Symptoms include high fever, severe headaches, muscle and joint pains, nausea, vomiting, swollen glands or rash. Dengue itself is rarely fatal, but in some cases, uncomplicated dengue progresses to a more severe or haemorrhagic form of dengue. In rare cases this can be fatal.

Dengue is now the world’s fastest growing vector borne disease. Within the last 50 years the number of cases increased 30 fold. Around the world more than 100 countries are now endemic for dengue. Many Pacific Island countries are currently experiencing outbreaks of dengue. So far there are more than 15,000 reported cases of dengue in Fiji and 12 people have died. The number of cases is expected to continue to increase in the coming months.

Lymphatic Filariasis

Infection with lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, occurs when thin, thread-like parasites are transmitted to humans through mosquitoes.

WHO’s Pacific Program to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis (PacELF) was launched 1999. This successful program has resulted in moves towards elimination in Niue, Palau and Vanuatu, with Solomon Islands being re-classified as non-endemic.

Chikungunya

Chikungunya is a viral disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. The same mosquitoes transmit chikungunya and dengue. The name chikungunya comes from a Tanzanian language, meaning "to become contorted" and describes the stooped appearance of sufferers.

The Pacific has historically been free from chikungunya. However, an outbreak in New Caledonia in 2011 and more recent outbreaks in the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea have highlighted the risk to communities in the Pacific where there are competent mosquito vectors and similar social factors and environmental conditions.

Other mosquito-borne diseases:

Other vector-borne diseases in the Pacific include malaria, ross river virus and zika virus. For the first time in the Pacific, Zika virus outbreaks have recently reported from French Polynesia and New Caledonia.

Protecting yourself and your family

You can do your part to protect yourself and your family by destroying mosquito breeding sites and preventing mosquito bites including:

  • Reduce mosquito breeding sites by clearing out rubbish from yards and emptying vessels of water including, discarded tires, drums, uncovered water storage containers, blocked gutters and upturned coconut shells.
  • Clean and empty the water containers once per week or where these cannot be emptied contact the local health authority for applying safe chemicals (e.g. abate).
  • Wear clothing that minimizes skin exposure during daylight hours when mosquitoes are most active; dengue mosquitoes bite during dawn and dusk. Wearing well covered footwear instead of slippers during this time is also advisable.
  • Apply repellents to exposed skin
  • Where indoor biting occurs, household insecticide aerosol products, mosquito coils or other insecticide vaporizers may also reduce biting activity.
  • Where feasible improve housing with mosquito proof wire mesh or sleep under mosquito nets to avoid night biting mosquitoes that transmit lymphatic filariasis.
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