By Enrique Guevara in Panama
The seriousness of dengue fever is often underestimated, but each year thousands of people are killed, and millions more are at risk from this disease. An effective response requires vigilance in prevention and investment in getting educational materials into the hands of those best placed to act and share.
Like many tropical countries, El Salvador is constantly under threat of heavy seasonal rains, which often lead to floods and landslides. These disasters can increase the risk of yet another disaster – dengue fever. Dengue is caused by bite from a specific type of mosquito that breeds in pools of pure or rain water. It can be very harmful; but it can also be prevented.
This type of slow onset disaster can affect already vulnerable communities – having a particularly significant effect on children and young people who may have a lower immunity than adults. It may not inspire international headlines, but during a widespread dengue outbreak, it can result in more death and disruption than a sudden disaster such as an earthquake.
As part of its response to a recent outbreak of dengue in El Salvador, and with funding from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Salvadorean Red Cross carried out a range of dengue-prevention activities, including public education and awareness campaigns in communities and schools. The Red Cross also helped to control or clean up mosquito breeding sites – such as pools of rainwater – that could be a cause of infection.
Oscar Armando Mendoza, a student at the Centro Escolar Milingo, lives in Habitat Confien with his mother and three brothers. He took part in a prevention workshop in his school, following a recent spike in cases. His school was one of 250 visited by the Red Cross in an effort that reached over 230,000 pupils.
For Oscar and his family, dengue is not a silent disaster. His older brother was diagnosed with dengue with complications, which can be fatal.
“It started with him bleeding out of his nose and at first we thought that he had been injured,” Oscar said. “But when the bleeding continued my mother took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed.” His brother was in the hospital for a month.
The workshop Oscar attended taught students how to make household traps with readily accessible materials. They began in individual classrooms and then broke out into the entire school with students urged to take what they had learned out into the communities.
“They taught us to share our knowledge with our families, and followed up, encouraging us to give presentations on the consequences of dengue,” Oscar said. “We learned how to prevent the disease and we are prepared because we are avoiding receptacles that could accumulate water, cleaning our houses, covering barrels and buckets.” The messages went out from schools and into homes and shopping centres, eventually reaching an additional 170,000 people.
In addition to educational outreach, the Red Cross, in partnership with the government, began a programme of household fumigation, treating more than 47,000 homes that were vulnerable to mosquito infestation.
“Dengue is a serious public health problem worldwide and the government, health authorities, local institutions and affected communities must be involved in dealing with it,” said Fernando Fernández, ECHO’s Regional Health Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. “ECHO contributes with interventions focused on the most vulnerable and difficult to access communities.”
While short-term measures such as fumigation are essential and provide immediate relief to affected communities and families, the Salvadorean Red Cross – in partnership with community leaders, schools, and both national and regional authorities – is also working on sustainable projects that help communities to prevent and tackle future outbreaks.
The fight against dengue is long and difficult, but Oscar and his family – like many others – have taken firm action to respond to the immediate crisis and to improve the preparedness and resilience of their community.