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Dengue fever fears for NZ after Fiji outbreak

Published: 6:25AM Sunday March 02, 2014 Source: Fairfax

  • Mosquito (Source: Thinkstock)
    Mosquito - Source: Thinkstock

An outbreak of dengue fever that has killed three people and swamped hospitals in Fiji may be headed for New Zealand, experts warn.

For the first time all four known serotypes of the virus are active in the region, threatening the severe and potentially deadly dengue haemorrhagic fever.

In New Zealand the latest figures (December 2013) show a 41 per cent jump in the monthly reported cases of dengue, most of them in Auckland.

Reports from around the Pacific show a dengue epidemic has the potential to hit New Zealand, having already swept through northern Queensland, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and the Solomon Islands.

In Fiji, where there have been 2589 confirmed cases, the military regime claims there is "little chance" that the fever will hit its lucrative tourist belt.

Dr Mary McIntyre, of the University of Otago's Ecology and Health Laboratory in Wellington, does not rule out mosquitoes capable of spreading dengue from getting established here.

"We are creating situations that make things easier for those pests and pathogens that already cause us woe," she says.

Travel was spreading the virus and trade could bring in the mosquitoes, such a dengue's main vector Aedes aegypti.

Land use is also changing in New Zealand making it favourable for mosquitoes.

"A warmer climate means that foreign mosquitoes can move into areas that were previously too cool, where they usually replace native ones," she said, noting this had recently happened in Palmerston North.

McIntyre says if Asian tiger mosquitoes escaped biosecurity measures and became established, it could act together with the resident striped mosquito to spread dengue infection.

McIntyre says New Zealanders who get dengue abroad recover back home but are "at risk of a more serious haemorrhagic condition [if] reinfected in the future with a different strain of dengue virus".

Fiji's Ministry of Information says most of the dengue cases there have hit Suva. The main resort island of Denarau had recorded no cases.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation Fiji reporter Samisoni Pareti visited Lautoka Hospital last month where large numbers are overwhelming medical staff.

"What I saw that night was a very pitiful sight, the out-station emergency area was being taken up by patients seeking medical treatment," he said.

Widespread insecticide spraying was launched last week in Fiji's central district.

As many as 400 million people are infected by dengue annually, with 20,000 deaths in 125 countries. It has emerged as a global problem only since the 1950s and urbanisation. There are no vaccines and no drugs to control it.