Rio Struggles to Contain Epidemic

An epidemic of dengue fever has been spreading throughout Rio de Janeiro and the mosquito that is carrying the deadly virus is also spreading panic.

Outside the emergency health centers set up by the state government, crowds of anxious mothers wait with their children, all showing symptoms of dengue fever.

"I've been waiting here all morning. My son was turned away. I had to call the doctor on his cell. … Attendance [by doctors] here is terrible," one mother hysterically shouted.

"It's a disgrace," another woman said. "I've been waiting here outside for over an hour just to be able to wait indoors. It's absurd."

A long line of people waited outside Miguel Couto Hospital on a recent night. One person in the line was Milton dos Santos, who was waiting for his test results to confirm whether he had caught the virus.

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"I've been waiting here for seven hours and still nothing. Look at this," he said pointing to the bruises on his cheeks. Bruises or rashes are often telltale signs of the illness. "All this time I've been here waiting for my exam results. Let's hope we find a solution to this problem."

Dengue fever is caused by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The mosquito carries the virus and transmits it when biting a human. There is no vaccine for the virus and while it cannot be transmitted from human to human, the results can be devastating.

In its mildest form it appears as a harsh case of influenza. At its worst, it kills by dehydrating its victims and causing organ failure. Haemorrhagic dengue causes internal bleeding and it usually fatal.

In Rio de Janeiro, more than 50 deaths have been confirmed and an additional 60 are still being investigated.

Dengue fever is a chronic problem in Rio, but this year the number of cases has exploded. Since the beginning of the year, around 43,000 people have contracted the virus, a figure that more than doubles last year's numbers.

Doctors calculate that there are 13 new cases diagnosed every hour, and the health system is struggling to cope with the weight of numbers.

The surge in cases appears to be the result of a stronger and more durable Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Although it was earlier believed that the mosquito larvae could only survive in clean water, it's now adapted to all kinds of water. In addition, the mosquito is proving more resistant to traditional pesticides making it more difficult to combat.

More than 1,200 firefighters have been drafted to help with the dengue prevention campaign, going to high-risk areas to rid them of pools of standing water in piles of rubbish, drying out abandoned swimming pools and distributing information to people.

Brazilian Health Secretary Jose Noronha has announced that an additional 1,200 troops from the army, navy and air force would be drafted to help out.

There has been a show of force by Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao; Rio de Janeiro's governor, Sergio Cabral; and Rio's health secretary, Sergio Cortes, to deal with this crisis.

Cortes was instrumental in setting up the emergency health centers, which have provided much-needed support in dealing with the epidemic.

"The number of cases is really alarming," Cortes told ABC News. "We can officially characterize this as a dengue epidemic in Rio de Janeiro."

Cabral, who recently presided over the opening of emergency tents that are being used to hydrate fever victims, called the epidemic "a dire emergency."

The city's emergency services are working around the clock to prevent the situation spiraling ever further out of control, but for the long lines of people waiting outside Rio's hospitals, help cannot come soon enough.

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