afrol News, 7 March - The mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus is jumping from one island to another in the Indian Ocean region. Island states that are known as "Paradise" to tourists stand helpless in their fight against the mosquitoes. Some 157,000 people have been infected in the French island Réunion alone, and the virus has got a firm hold on Seychelles, Mauritius and Mayotte (French) as well. Tourists are afraid to go as the epidemic spreads.
Lee Jong-wook, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), was one of the few international visitors to go to Mauritius today. The WHO leader is to meet with Mauritian government officials to discuss how the UN agency can assist it fighting the feared Chikungunya epidemic.
Now it is official. Chikungunya is not only found in persons coming to Mauritius from abroad - as Mauritian authorities held for a long time - but can be caught by mosquito bites in Mauritius. Over 2500 cases have already been registered on the island, WHO informed today. Many thousand cases more are expected to go unreported as there is no cure to the disease. After attacks of high fever, dehydration and severe pain, patients slowly rehabilitate on their own. Only very weak persons - children or the elderly - are known to face a risk of dying.
The biggest outbreak is known from the neighbouring French island of Réunion, where approximately 2400 cases of the disease have been reported during the last months. WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib in Geneva today however stated that it was thought that close to 157,000 people in Réunion had been infected since March 2005. Only during one February week, WHO estimates, some 22,000 persons were infected. Some 93 deaths are attributed to the outbreak.
From Réunion, the disease that so far had only been known from the East African mainland and Asia is believed to have spread to other Indian Ocean paradises, probably onboard on airplanes and ferries. The most affected island state after Réunion has so far been the Seychelles, which also bases its economy on transcontinental tourism.
According to the WHO spokesperson, at least 4,650 cases have been registered in Seychelles so far. On the island of Mayotte - located in the Comoros archipelago but administered by France - the outbreak only started in late January but almost 1000 cases have already been registered. Mayotte's poor Comoran neighbours have so far been spared.
This week, however, the worst fears of regional health workers were materialised as a Chikungunya outbreak was confirmed on the large island of Madagascar. The outbreak, which is believed to have started in February, is concentrated on the eastern coastal city of Toamasina, but may easily spread across the island, finding a permanent refuge here. Thus, the eradication of Chikungunya from the Indian Ocean region would become close to impossible.
Operations to stop the outbreak have been extensive and costly. France sent hundreds of troops to Réunion earlier this year to assist the local administration spraying mosquito hideouts and provide protection to the population. French PM Dominique de Villepin visited the island on 26-27 February, promising further health research into the disease. Despite all efforts, the epidemic only has continued spreading. It has not even been possible to slow down its spread.
Harsh measures were also introduced by the governments of Mauritius and Seychelles. In mid-February, a national Committee on the Chikungunya epidemic was set up in Mauritius. Spraying and fogging machines were ordered from abroad and some 100,000 litres of insecticides were bought "to cover the whole country," the government announced. But also here, the disease has only continued to spread.
National governments however have one fear that is greater than the spread of the disease - which after all is not very dangerous, only painful - that is a disastrous drop in tourist arrivals. Réunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Mayotte principally finance their strong economy on intercontinental tourism.
For the Mauritian Chikungunya Committee, it was therefore obvious to dedicate its second meeting "to put up a communication strategy at the international level," a choice that also found support among the Mauritian population. The 23 February meeting was "designed to reassure foreign press agencies, tour operators and tourists that the government is stepping up preventive measures on Chikungunya and also that the situation is under control," the government stated.
WHO leader Lee quickly understood that the main concern among Mauritians is the potential loss of tourist arrivals. While Dr Lee in Geneva still had advised against the dangers of Chikungunya, noting the rapid spread in the Indian Ocean region, his comments to the Mauritian press fell within government desires. "The danger has been overplayed," Dr Lee told 'Le Mauricien' today, thus providing the daily with its front page headline.
In Seychelles, where the government is less willing to talk openly about the disease out of fear it may cause further negative attention, the tourism industry itself had to calm down potential tourists. The national airliner Air Seychelles in a newsletter to potential customers assures that life in Paradise "has remained relatively undisturbed by the presence of Chikungunya."
According to Air Seychelles, there is no reason for concern. "Residents have been going about their normal daily lives while visitors continue to explore the best the islands have to offer," the airliner claims. Contrary to the WHO, Air Seychelles reports "a decline in the number of new cases of Chikungunya" due to the effective counter-measures enacted by Seychellois health officials.
No tourists had yet been infected [in Seychelles, but indeed in Réunion], the airliner says, however adding that one should bring an insect repellent and painkillers in case of infection. The only cure against Chikungunya was painkillers and plenty of rest for 4-7 days, it is explained. And which better place could there be to rest than in Seychelles?
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