Australian soldiers and medical experts from the World Health Organization are helping the East Timorese government cope with an outbreak of dengue fever that has killed nine people this month.
The dengue fever outbreak, which followed the onset of heavy rains, prompted an SOS to the international community earlier this week from East Timor's minister for health, Dr. Rui Araujo.
The response has been swift. An Australian army medical team has put itself at the disposal of the government, while the World Health Organization plans to fly in experts from Thailand to treat the dangerous hemorrhagic form of dengue that is occurring here.
Extra measures are being taken to protect facilities occupied by the 470 United Nations troops still stationed in East Timor. These include spraying barracks with insecticide every day and providing mosquito repellants in canteens.
Like malaria, dengue is spread by mosquitoes, which breed in standing water. The symptoms are sudden high fever, severe headache and pain behind the eyes. Medical experts say that without proper treatment, fatality rates from the hemorrhagic form of the disease can exceed 20 percent.
Dr. Alex Anbjaparidze is coordinating the WHO response here, which is being backed by funds from the United States and Japan. "At this stage we have 67 cases which have been hospitalized. But at the same time we are collecting information from other districts: there is the possibility that numbers will increase," he said. "So far nine people have died, mostly they are the children under four years."
Dili's community of foreign U.N. staff and aid workers has also been affected by the outbreak. Mark Hampson, the doctor for Australian embassy, says he has treated 20 cases of dengue in the past three weeks. These cases are in addition to the 67 cases the WHO and ministry of health have found.
So far the outbreak has been confined to Dili and two surrounding districts. But there are fears that it could spread and health officials are checking reports of cases in the eastern town of Baucao.
Dr. Anbjaparidze says people need to be educated about the risk of dengue and about the preventive measures they can take. "This mosquito, called the Aedes aegypti, lives with the human beings, where the humans are staying, and particularly in areas where there is some shortage of drinking water," he said. "And population tries to keep the jugs with the water without covering, this is the best breeding place for the mosquitoes."
The WHO estimates that 2.5 billion people - two fifths of the world's population - are now at risk from dengue.