- Chikungunya, a crippling mosquito-borne disease, has seen an explosive spread in Indian Ocean nations. On the French island of Réunion, nearly one in ten inhabitants have been infected and France in now sending 300 soldiers to get the outbreak under control. The disease, to which there is no cure, has also spread to Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius.
Chikungunya is not know to be fatal, but the mosquito-borne disease causes severe pains, high fever and the swelling of joints in the body, often crippling the victim. The name "chikungunya" comes from Swahili, meaning "that which bends up" and refers to the stooped posture of the victims, unable to move normally.
The fever outbreak was first notices in Réunion in February last year, with a few infected cases being reported regularly until December. Since that, the epidemic has exploded on the tourist island. By now, some 70,000 islanders - representing almost one tenth of the population - has been afflicted, according to the French Overseas Territories Minister François Baroin.
Minister Baroin at a press conference in Paris today said that French authorities now are to reinforce the 500 soldiers already deployed on the island with 300 fresh troops to help Réunion stop the outbreak. The main strategy was to eradicate mosquitoes spreading the virus, the Minister said. Further, 2,800 health workers, administrative staff and other personnel were working to eradicate the virus in Réunion, he said.
The French government was now hoping for quick results. Soldiers and other personnel have however been spraying pesticides all over the island to eradicate mosquitoes for several weeks. Despite of the efforts, the number of victims has risen steeper than ever before. In the last week of January, 15,000 person were afflicted. This week, almost 20,000 more had caught the disease.
With the epidemic out of control in Réunion, health authorities in neighbouring Indian Ocean states have been on the alert for several weeks. Chikungunya is already known to have spread to several other island states, probably due to the large airborne traffic between the islands.
In Seychelles, around 2,500 cases of chikungunya have been reported to the authorities during the last few weeks. The number of newly afflicted is doubling every week. By now, the army has been mobilised to exterminate mosquitoes all over the archipelago. The new World Health Organisation (WHO) liaison officer in Seychelles, Cornelia Atsyor, has promised she and the WHO will help the Seychellois government in fighting the outbreak.
Mauritius, which is the closest neighbour of Réunion, is by now also starting to report its first cases of chikungunya infections. Authorities assume the disease has come with travellers from Réunion and are now screening airports and ports. Spraying with pesticides has also started, in particular close to tourist resorts. According to the Mauritian Ministry of Health, at least 15 persons have caught the disease by now.
In accordance with other Indian Ocean governments, the Mauritian Ministry of Health has issued a public communiqué stating the basic measures to be taken. "The public is requested to prevent any dirty and stagnant water – outside or even in a vase – or any waste accumulation. It is also asked to use sprays and creams to discourage mosquitoes," the communiqué says.
Concerns are now highest for Madagascar, the "giant" island of the region, where the health infrastructure is much less developed than in the richer neighbour states. An outbreak has yet to be confirmed, but tens of people showing possible symptoms have already flocked to hospitals on the island's second city of Toamasina. Blood samples are now being analysed.
Not only Malagasy authorities fear a chikungunya on the Great Island - neighbour states are equally concerned. A possible outbreak in Madagascar could be very difficult to control and the island could thus provide a pool for the virus in the region for years.
A prolonged chikungunya outbreak in the Indian Ocean region could further have a great economic impact on the small island states, who wish as little publicity about the disease as possible. In particular Réunion, Mauritius and Seychelles are major tourist destinations and the tourism industry plays a vital role in national economies. Currently, concerns are strongest in Réunion's tourism industry, which fears a major setback this season.
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