Downplaying dengue is unhelpful

Dengue fever appears to be far more widespread in India than the government figures show. A recent study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that between 2006 and 2012, close to 6 million people were diagnosed with dengue in India annually. This is roughly 282 times the government estimate of dengue cases in the same period. Health officials in the country will conjure up various conspiracy theories to brush aside the study’s findings. That the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company that is in the midst of trials of a dengue vaccine raises questions over possible manipulation of the results. The researchers have clarified that the company had no control over the study. Besides, the study was conducted by researchers from well-respected American and Indian institutions, including the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Centre for Research in Medical Entomology in Madurai.

Rather than dismiss the findings off-hand as an exaggeration, the government must investigate the alleged under-reporting of dengue cases. If the problem is indeed being downplayed it has serious implications for the wellbeing of our people as dengue is a deadly disease to contract and in the more serious form, fatality is high. The burden of this disease has devastating impact on the economy of the individual and the country. The study found that dengue inflicts an annual economic burden on India of at least US$1.11 billion in medical and other associated expenses.

Underestimating dengue’s reach undermines our capacity to deal with it. If the disease is as widespread as the study suggests, India must act even more robustly than it has hitherto to prevent it. Besides regular fogging of public areas, we need to improve our public health infrastructure to deal with the large number of people needing treatment. By denying the magnitude of the problem, we are depriving the battle against dengue the focus and funds it obviously needs. Importantly, the government must spread public awareness on the disease. Erroneous information undermines efforts to fight dengue.

For instance, many believe that using mosquito nets while sleeping will prevent dengue. This may prevent malaria but not dengue as the latter is spread by the bite of an infected Aedes Egypti mosquito, a day biter.  Besides, this mosquito breeds in water collections inside the home - in vases, indoor pots and open water tanks.

Rather than go into denial, India must face up to the magnitude of the problem to fight it. It won the battle against polio. This should inspire it to take on the dengue challenge confidently.  

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