By Ricky Moreno
Last November, one of my young nieces, who is very small, asked me, “How can a minuscule little bite from a tiny - like me - mosquito cause someone to die?” My uncle and his family had just come home from Germany on vacation and walked into a family tragedy. We were all due to travel down to Catarman in Samar for a long-overdue family get-together, but disaster had struck just three days earlier. Another of my nieces, only 11 years old, had been sick. She’d been taken to the local provincial clinic where she’d been diagnosed with just a high fever. Her parents were told to take her home and give her some paracetamol. Three days later she was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. She succumbed to dengue.
My visiting niece was so looking forward to seeing her cousins and couldn’t understand what had happened – and nor, for that matter, could we adults. She said, “Things like this don’t happen in Germany.” And I thought to myself that in this day and age, they shouldn’t happen in the Philippines either. We were all so angry with what was being called a sad case of simple misdiagnosis by the local clinic. A precious young life had been lost.
It brought back dreadful memories of when my own daughter was at elementary school in Manila. One of her classmates had dengue and was rushed to hospital where the best medicine and doctors were available. Despite this, the girl’s distraught mother put out a plea to all the other parents asking them for some tawa-tawa, a herb used in traditional medicine that goes by many English names, including pill-bearing spurge and asthma plant. She said one of the nurses at the hospital told her it would help her daughter’s platelet count. Someone else at the hospital said papaya leaves would do the same.
I was horrified at the time that a modern hospital would even consider such remedies. But if I remember correctly, a combination of medicinal drugs and some plant leaves helped save her life. Which ones did the trick is still an unanswered question, but I guess that when faced with situations like this, you’ll try anything.
When this type of thing occurs, it makes me want to know whether some alternative medicines are actually effective. I remember when I was working in Kuala Lumpur a few years ago, one of the other reporters at our newspaper ran a story about a soldier who was out on patrol in a mountainous jungle area. The patrol had abseiled down a cliff face into a remote area, and this particular soldier had fallen from a rocky path into a pit and then got bitten by a snake.
The weather and terrain made a helicopter rescue too risky, so his fellow soldiers headed off at full speed to get help. When they returned two days later, he was gone. A search of the surrounding area found him sitting up in bed in a village after being treated by the local “medicine woman.” The attending army doctor said she had probably saved his life.
The treatment had consisted of a glass jar full of leaves, herbs, and what looked like a lot of old bugs. The elderly lady was reluctant to give up her secrets, and I believe they must have died with her.
Sorry, I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the dreaded dengue.
Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral infection which causes a severe flu-like sickness. The female Aedes aegypti mosquito is the main transmitter of the virus, biting and feeding on the blood of an infected person and then passing it to another person in the same way. The newly infected person - now a target for more mosquitos - becomes the main carrier of the virus.
After a person has been bitten by an infected mosquito, the virus incubates for four to 10 days, and then remains in the blood for a further two to seven days. Once you have recovered from the virus, you are then immune for life from contracting the same strain of dengue again.
Once a person is infected with dengue, they develop severe flu-like symptoms. The disease affects infants, children and adults alike, and can be fatal.
Dengue could be present if you have a high fever (40°C) accompanied by two of the following symptoms:
Pain behind the eyes
Muscle and joint pains
It’s critical that you seek medical advice if you experience these symptoms, and that you get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Paracetamol can be taken to bring down your fever and reduce joint pains, but aspirin or ibuprofen are not advised as they can increase the risk of bleeding.
I have always said that prevention is key to helping stop any form of disease or injury. We can practice proper solid-waste disposal (correctly bagging and storing), improve our water-storage facilities, including covering pots and clearing drainage pipes, and do anything else possible to prevent female mosquitos from laying their eggs.
If you have a garden, terrace or balcony with plants, make sure that anything that can retain water is kept as far away from doors and windows as possible. After watering plants, empty the drip-trays that some plant pots or holders have. You can buy mosquito-repellent candles and ultra-violet lights that zap them in most hardware stores. And the old-fashioned katol mosquito coils still have some effect in keeping them at bay.
It’s also a good idea to be careful inside your home. If you have indoor plants, make sure that you regularly spray them with insect killer, and don't let any stagnant water remain in pot holders. Spray the curtains and rooms with insect killer before you leave home. I have always slept under a mosquito net; these don't seem as popular now as they used to be, but they work for me.
In 2017, after the Dengvaxia scare, there was a lot of controversy and negativity about the dengue vaccine. News reports, a paper from the World Health Organization, and advice from several government departments, all noted that some mistakes were made. But - and it’s a big but - to stop widespread dengue outbreaks and to protect our children from this deadly virus, we must vaccinate against it.