Image: Dengue fever patients
Chitose Suzuki  /  AP
Dengue fever patients Ngo Dinh Khoi, 33, of Hanoi, foreground, and Lo Van Thuan, 19, of Dien Bien Phu Province share a bed due to a bed shortage at Dong Da Hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam.
updated 10/26/2007 4:27:33 PM ET 2007-10-26T20:27:33

The worst outbreak of dengue fever in years has hit Southeast Asia, prompting the World Health Organization to call for better prevention campaigns as experts question whether global warming is partly to blame.

Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have all experienced large outbreaks. Most of the victims are children who arrive at hospitals burning up with fever and crying from intense joint pain, a common symptom of the so-called "bone-breaker" disease.

There is no vaccine or cure for the four different varieties of the mosquito-borne virus spreading within the region. Even though outbreaks in several countries appear to be waning, many patients are still falling ill.

"We should really be in prevention mode, putting in place sound measures for suppressing the vector population so we can at least dampen down the epidemic," said Michael Nathan, a dengue expert at WHO in Geneva.

Every week for the past two months, some 350 patients have been admitted to hospitals in Vietnam's southern Ho Chi Minh City. That is double the number from the same period last year, said Nguyen Dac Tho, deputy director of the city's preventive medicine department.

Nationwide, Vietnam has logged nearly 80,000 cases this year, including 68 deaths. That is a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2006, with the majority reported in the country's southern provinces where the monsoon season runs from June through December.

Nguyen Huy Nga, director of the national Preventive Medicine Department, said the number of cases has dropped down to about 2,000 cases each week since early October, from nearly 3,000 new cases reported weekly in September.

"We are now concentrating our efforts to completely wipe out dengue outbreaks to prevent possible flare ups next year," he said.

Dengue infects up to 50 million people worldwide every year; WHO estimates 19,000 deaths occurred in 2002, according to its most recent data. It causes rashes, blistering headaches, nausea and excruciating joint aches. The most serious form of the disease can cause internal bleeding, liver enlargement and circulatory shut down.

"This is the first time I've ever been this sick. Blood formed under my skin," said Ngo Dinh Khoi, 33, while resting in a bed he was forced to share with another dengue patient. "It was like someone was putting needles into my joints."

Indonesia has also had a bad year with more than 123,500 cases and 1,250 deaths, already surpassing the 114,000 cases for all of 2006. WHO sent regional expert Chusak Prasittisuk to Jakarta this week to assess the situation and help ready hospitals and the public for the rainy months ahead, when most cases are typically reported.

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"I've come here to urge them to prepare for the worst scenario," he said.

Cambodia also has been hit hard, logging some 38,500 cases and 389 deaths _ more than double the same figures from 2006. The bulk of those sickened were children younger than 15, said Ngan Chantha, head of the national dengue center.

However, he said the situation has improved in recent weeks, following an intense public awareness campaign warning residents to keep water from collecting in containers around their houses where mosquitoes can breed.

Thailand and Malaysia have recorded a combined 80,000 cases, with 67 and 88 deaths, respectively.

"Experts say it's partly due to global warming because it's increased the amount of water, not only sea water, but fresh water where mosquitoes breed," said Dr. Thawat Suntrajarn, director of Thailand's Department of Communicable Diseases. Thailand's rainy season started earlier this usual this year.

Scientists fear rising temperatures and longer rainy seasons, as Thailand experienced this year, will allow more vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria to flourish.

Singapore, for instance, saw mean annual temperatures increase 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit between 1978 and 1998, while the number of dengue fever cases jumped tenfold during the same period.

This year, the number of cases has tripled in the city state over last year. About 200 patients are still being admitted weekly, though only a handful have died.

The last major dengue outbreak to hit Southeast Asia was in 1998, when about 350,000 cases and nearly 1,500 deaths were reported. Indonesia and Thailand were not included in that tally.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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