afrol News, 6 April - While Mauritius and the French island of Réunion are reporting of a decreasing number of people being infected with the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus, the number of deaths attributed to the epidemic is reaching 160. Despite earlier claims from Seychelles that "no tourists" had been infected, European clinics are registering a growing number of persons returning from the Indian Ocean islands with the disease.
One month ago, afrol News reported on the spread of chikungunya in the popular tourist destinations of the Indian Ocean. In reference to a statement by government-controlled Air Seychelles, it was reported that "no tourists have yet been infected" in Seychelles.
Immediately, editors received letters from tourists that had returned from the Seychelles, contracted by the virus. British "Jade" said she recently "came back from a two month holiday" in Seychelles. There, her 14-year-old daughter "got this virus about a week before our departure," to the knowledge of Seychellois authorities. "She is having severe joint pains, rashes and high temperatures," the British mother complained. She knew about other tourists infected by chikungunya in Seychelles.
Authorities in Seychelles, Mauritius and the French islands of Réunion and Mayotte naturally have wanted to play down the spread of chikungunya, given its cooling effect on tourism - the region's main revenue source. While Seychelles has met the crisis with disinformation, authorities on the other islands have been more transparent but focusing on the strong efforts to fight the epidemic.
Meanwhile, it has become impossible to hide the effect of chikungunya on tourism. Already in early March, German health authorities reported that at least seven German tourists to Réunion, Mauritius and Seychelles had caught the disease and were treated by health personnel in Germany.
On 22 March, the first case of an Austrian tourist was reported by the Viennese press. This week, a Norwegian tourist returned home with a chikungunya infection. Also French, British, Italian and Swiss health authorities have registered several cases of chikungunya among returning tourists, without detailing total numbers. It is believed that as many as 20 to 50 European tourists have been infected.
While the number of infected tourists is tiny compared to the epidemic's scale in Réunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Mayotte, they may have a much stronger effect on national economies. In particular in March, a significant part of booked travels to these Indian Ocean destinations were cancelled out of fear over the epidemic.
In Mauritius, the national tourism sector noted a severe setback in March. To many players, it seemed tourism had stopped altogether. Tourism Minister Xavier-Luc Duval however claims the island nation already is noting a slight recovery. "Statistics tend to show that the situation will be nearly back to normal in April. We have come over the worst," Mr Duval told the 'Express' earlier this week.
The island of Réunion has been the worst hit during the chikungunya outbreak in the Indian Ocean. With a total of 230,000 cases and 155 deaths reported since the outbreak of the epidemic, economic consequences have been enormous on the island that houses 780,000 people. On third of the working population has been on a shorter or longer sick leave.
The tourism sector is especially hard hit. Several hotels have temporarily closed their doors. Airliners have cancelled many of the regular flights to Réunion given the reduced demand. Shops, hotels, casinos and craftsmen report of severely reduced activities. More than 70 companies, many of them involved in the tourism sector, have requested state aid to tackle the crisis.
Following a tough battle to eradicate the mosquitoes that spread the painful disease, authorities in Mauritius and Réunion by now however note positive signs. In Réunion - which has received 2,400 French soldiers, medical staff and a field hospital from Paris to tackle the outbreak - the number of new infections is now dropping significantly. In Mauritius, health authorities claim a decreasing rate of new infections.
Private doctors however contradict this, saying that official statistics are wrong because many patients do not care to report the disease, to which there is no other cure than resting. There is at least an agreement that the infection rate is no longer increasing, demonstrating a better control with the epidemic.
So far, around 250,000 cases of chikungunya infections have been registered in the Indian Ocean region this year. Out of these, 230,000 are in Réunion alone. Almost 10,000 cases have been registered in Seychelles, while there are at least 6,000 registered cases in Mauritius and around 3,000 cases on the French island of Mayotte, located in the Comoros archipelago. A few cases have also been registered in Madagascar and in Maldives.
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