updated 3/2/2007 4:20:00 PM ET 2007-03-02T21:20:00

One of Paraguay’s top health officials died Friday of dengue fever, the latest casualty in an epidemic that has infected thousands of people.

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Maria Catalina Roa, who oversaw registered nurses in all public hospitals, had been hospitalized two weeks ago after contracting the mosquito-borne illness.

In January and February alone, 15,000 people have been infected, compared to just 1,600 all last year, according to official figures. Ten people have died.

Some doctors say the actual toll is much higher, since many infected Paraguayans do not seek professional treatment. Opposition legislators say the actual number may be as high as 130,000.

Leaders called ‘negligent, inept’
Some 500 protesting hospital workers demanded the resignation of Health Minister Oscar Martinez.

“Our leaders are negligent, inept,” said Carlos Cubas, one of the demonstrators. “Our comrade Maria Catalina, who fought to preserve the life of hundreds of people, has died today. This is a very sad day.”

President Nicanor Duarte declared a two-month national state of emergency and allocated funds to fumigate breeding areas for disease-spreading aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have flourished in unusually wet weather in central South America.

The government has asked for help from the United States and Argentina to determine what types of dengue are present in the current epidemic.

Four of those to die were among 40 cases of the more severe hemorrhagic form of dengue, which causes a sudden high fever, rash, aches, weakness, restlessness and even internal bleeding. Many others apparently have classic dengue — also called bonebreak fever — which causes fever, intense headaches, and joint and muscle pain.

The disease cannot be transmitted between people.

Dengue fever is common in Latin America. Recent outbreaks have been reported in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and even Easter Island, Chile’s possession in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

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