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Saturday, 27 l 03 l 2010 ;  Source:  The StraitsTimes  
By Karamjit Kaur  

NEA watching for spike in cases here as less common strain surfaces

SINGAPORE is on alert for a possible spike in cases of dengue fever, especially  for people coming down with a less common type of the virus.

The current warm spell, brought on by the El Nino weather  henomenon, is partly to blame, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said yesterday.

Though mosquitoes need stagnant water to breed, it is dry weather that not only accelerates breeding, but also makes the insects infective faster.

While there is no reason for alarm, the authority is on alert because there is evidence that Dengue Type 1, 3 and 4 may be becoming more rampant, said the head of operations at NEA’s environmental health department, Mr Tai Ji Choong.

Random blood samples taken from those who caught the disease this year showed that cases of the less common viruses have surfaced in parts of Woodlands, as well as in Serangoon Road and Serangoon North.

In the last few years, Type 2 has been the more common dengue strain in Singapore, said Mr Tai.

But with the cycle usually changing every two to three years, experts believe another shift is imminent.

Although no one virus type is more dangerous than the other, the problem is that fewer people here are immune to Type 1, 3 and 4, said Mr Tai.

A person who has caught one dengue type has lifelong immunity to it, but not to the others.

The key to battling the potential threat is to ensure that the less dominant viruses do not spread and are quickly nipped in the bud when they occur.

The NEA is seeking the cooperation of the medical community for this.

Mr Tai said that the NEA will be working very closely with the hospitals and clinics to encourage them to send blood samples to the NEA for testing.

This will help the NEA determine what dengue type is out there.

“The more samples we receive, the more we are able to know what the situation is so that we can quickly deploy resources to control the spread,” he added.

As for the public, NEA’s appeal is the same: Get rid of stagnant water.

Mr Tai said: “If we are able to contain the situation and there is no change in the predominant dengue type, all things being equal... I think we will be able to further contain the problem this year... We hope this year will be as good as 2008 and 2009.”

Last year, a total of 4,498 people caught the disease, down from 7,031 in 2008 and 8,826 the year before that.

As at the end of last week, 978 cases have been reported so far this year, a 28.4 per cent drop over the same period last year.

By contrast, in nearby countries such as Malaysia for example, cases have been on the rise.

Singapore has done well to contain the dengue situation so far, said the NEA.

But with the warmer months approaching and El Nino expected to persist, more cases will be expected in the coming months, said Mr Tai, adding that the number typically peaks in June and July.

Apart from working with hospitals and clinics, NEA will continue to partner various government agencies, as well as town councils and industry bodies, to contain the mosquito situation.

After the last peak hit in 2004 and 2005, the agency went into full swing with a new action plan, which among other things, laid down how often each home, hawker centre or school should be checked.

Since then, regular meetings have been held with representatives of 26 government agencies and other partners to share information and keep tabs on what is happening on the ground.

Last year, more than 4.3 million inspections were carried out, compared to about 2.8 million in 2008.

The checks led to 16,977 breeding habitats detected last year, down from the 20,263 that were discovered the year before that.

It is good news but the work continues, said Mr Tai, noting: “We know that mosquitoes can breed anywhere; whether in public places or at home. If everybody cooperates... I think together we can control the mosquito population and control dengue in Singapore.”

Clinical director of the Communicable Disease Centre Leo Yee Sin said: “Should the outbreak (if it happens) be of the same scale as in 2004 to 2005, we are now better prepared owing to more dengue research after the earlier outbreaks leading to better understanding of disease management.”

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