CHENNAI: A study published in an international medical journal has revealed that the dengue burden in South India may be larger and scarier than imagined. To the extent that 93 per cent of those surveyed had tested seropositive for dengue (which means they had it at some time), but less than 1 per cent of them knew that they had been infected by the disease. Dengue has been a major thorn in the flesh for public health officials especially after the epidemic hit the State, two years ago.
According to the findings of the study titled ‘The Hidden Burden of Dengue and Chickungunya in Chennai’, people living in Chennai and Tamil Nadu may be at greater risk of bodily harm if they were to be hit by a recurrence of the vector-borne disease.
As many as 1,010 people from five places in Chennai were tested and questioned by doctors, who included former Chennai Corporation city health officer Dr S Kuganantham and others from Dr Suniti Solomons’s YRGCare. The lead author of the study was Dr Isabel Rodriguez-Barraquer, affiliated to the Johns Hopkins University in the US.
The study revealed that more people were aware that they’d had Chickungunya (20 per cent knew, while 44 per cent had tested positive) than dengue (93 per cent were blissfully unaware while 1 per cent knew). “The major reason for this is that most general practitioners are unaware of how to diagnose conditions like dengue. It is often mistaken for other diseases and the patients are overloaded with antibiotics and multivitamins,” said Kuganantham, who retired from the civic body in 2014.
Why is it scary if so many people have had dengue but almost none knew it? “One of the things about dengue is that it is not a disease that rarely recurs in people. As it is a vector-borne disease spread through mosquito bites, contracting it a second or even a third time can affect the person a lot worse. If they have a respiratory condition or any other co-morbid worry, then it can often be fatal,” explained Dr Ramamohan, general practitioner and community medicine specialist. “The key here is to find when a person suffered from it so that they can safeguard themselves against a multitude of issues.”
Though the study, which was published in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases journal, shows that there could be as many as 228,000 infections annually in a city like Chennai alone, Health Department officials set the numbers much lower. “In the whole State, we have managed to control the number of cases to under 3,500 every year. There may be occasions when it occurs in a mild form but these patients can get treatment at any PHC or government hospital,” said a senior health department official.
Urging civic bodies to focus on vector control in high-volume breeding areas, Kuganantham said it was one of the reasons why dengue didn’t escalate into a full-blown epidemic. “Even for the smart cities project that is underway, vector control needs to be done, otherwise it could be a critical issue. Also, the medical curriculum needs to focus on basic, simple conditions like malaria and typhoid, instead of only the super-specialities,” he added.