Deaths rising as Sri Lanka struggles with worst-ever outbreak of dengue

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The worst-ever outbreak of dengue fever in Sri Lanka has killed nearly 300 people with the number of cases rising rapidly, aid agencies said on Monday as they scaled up an emergency response in the wake of devastating floods and landslides in May.

Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health said the number of people infected by the mosquito-borne viral disease had reached over 103,000 so far this year - which is nearly double the total number of cases in 2016 - with about 296 deaths.

The Sri Lanka Red Cross said dengue patients were streaming into overcrowded hospitals that were stretched beyond capacity and struggling to cope, particularly in the country’s hardest hit Western Province.

“Dengue is endemic here, but one reason for the dramatic rise in cases is that the virus currently spreading has evolved and people lack the immunity to fight off the new strain,” Novil Wijesekara, head of health at the Sri Lanka Red Cross, said in a statement.

Dengue is common in South Asia, especially during the monsoon season which runs from June to September, and if untreated, it can kill.

Monsoon rains and flooding in Sri Lanka provided perfect breeding sites for mosquitoes and ongoing rain and worsening sanitation had exacerbated the situation, the agencies said.

Teams of Red Cross volunteers are working with government officials to provide patient care at hospitals and go door-to-door to raise awareness about the disease and stop its spread.

The International Federation of Red Cross said it had released new disaster emergency funds on Monday to help about 307,000 people in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha, and Kalutara where dengue was rampant.

“The size of this dengue outbreak is unprecedented in Sri Lanka,” Jagath Abeysinghe, president of Sri Lanka Red Cross, said in a statement.

“It will require a united front in support of the government’s prevention and control program and committed community action to tackle it.”

Dengue infects hundreds of millions of people each year and is becoming more prevalent, spreading to more than 100 countries from nine in 1960, according to the World Health Organization, with cases rising to 390 million a year from 15,000 in 1960.