Dengue complicates Southeast Asia’s coronavirus fight

JAKARTA — Southeast Asian countries are bracing for possible outbreaks of infectious diseases that show symptoms similar to those of the novel coronavirus ahead of the rainy season. Treatments for these seasonal infections are very different from those for COVID-19, complicating the work of front-line medical workers.

As of May 8, there were 53,660 cases of dengue fever in Indonesia. Infections are rising at a faster pace than last year. In 2019, Southeast Asia’s most populous country had 137,761 dengue fever infections, more than double the previous year, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency also warned on April 20 that the number of dengue fever cases is expected to exceed last year’s 16,000 unless all stakeholders take immediate and concerted action.

The agency also warned of a possible acceleration the dengue fever outbreak. In a May 18 statement, it said: “Five hundred twenty-nine dengue cases were reported in the week ending 16 May 2020, higher than the 300 to 400 weekly cases that we have seen for the first four months this year.”

Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease common to tropical and subtropical regions, including Southeast Asia. Symptoms include fever, headache and muscle aches. Severe cases can be deadly. There is no known no vaccine or drug that can prevent the disease.

Southeast Asia is also bracing for seasonal influenza, which spreads more easily during the rainy season, when the weather is cooler. The rainy season begins in May in Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and other countries in the region.

The difficulty for health care workers is that dengue fever and influenza have early symptoms similar to those of the coronavirus. Patients may have trouble getting the appropriate treatment.

In Singapore, one coronavirus patient was initially misdiagnosed with dengue fever. There have been similar cases in Indonesia.

In addition the problems with early diagnosis, the simultaneous spread of multiple diseases will put more pressure on Southeast’ Asia’s fragile health care systems. 

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