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New Caledonia health threat could spread

By Charlina Tone APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, March 13, 2011) - Samoans are being warned about a deadly virus similar the one causing dengue fever. Last month the chikungunya virus was detected in New Caledonia. There are therefore fears it might spread to Samoa.

Dr Jacob Kool, Team Leader of Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Response at the World Health Organisaton (WHO), says so far cases have been confirmed in New Caledonia. The virus was previously unknown to the Pacific.

"We have seen the first cases in New Caledonia late last month," he explains. "So we are quite sure the risk is very high that it will spread throughout the Pacific," says Dr. Kool.

He was speaking during the Communicable Diseases Symposium at the Millenia Hotel this week.

"Although there are only three confirmed cases in New Caledonia, two of them were locally acquired," he rev eals. "So it means the mosquitoes are already transmitting it there."

Chikungunya has the same symptoms as dengue fever. It is also transmitted by mosquitoes.

"I don’t know how long it will take but there is a high possibility that it will get here eventually. It will most probably be carried by travelers because when you get stung by a mosquito you get the infection but you don’t get sick immediately. So if you travel at that time nobody knows that you are carrying the virus."

He says it takes time for the virus to incubate and if a traveler gets sick in Samoa, then that person can spread the virus.

"Before you know it there will be an outbreak." He says Samoans must start taking preventative measures seriously. If you compare it to dengue fever, a lot of Samoan people are already immune. But in the case of this new disease nobody is immune and everybody is susceptible." Dr. Kool explains the seriousness of the virus by referring to an outbreak in the islands of the Indian Ocean.

"There was a huge epidemic and outbreak of chikungunya in 2004 and 2005 where up to 30 percent of the population got sick. Fortunately it doesn’t often cause death and is self-limiting but it can cause very terrible joint pain.

"The pain can sometimes last for months and is quite incapacitating for people." Dr. Kool has already given talks to Samoan doctors and public health staff about what to expect in the event of an outbreak. He urges Samoans to destroy any breeding grounds such as old tires and bottles filled with water. He also warns to wear long sleeve tops and pants during the day because the mosquito carrying the virus only bites during the day.

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