The alarming Aedes

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Friends, dengue victims and all you English speaking members of the Aedes species who happen to be hovering around this fine publication, lend me your ears. If the recent spate of dengue infections and deaths isn’t the worst thing to be borne out of all the failures that occurred in Pakistan in 2011, that’s because there’s so much competition.

As the toll exacted by terrorist attacks, flood damage and crooked politicians rises (though not in that order) one still doesn’t know what’s worse; the fact that we may have let the Aedes mosquito have its way with us this year, or that the majority of literate Pakistanis can’t even spell dengue correctly. With dangui, dengee and daingi doing the rounds, perhaps our lack of attention to detail shows we just don’t have any respect for the enemy. So is it any wonder we resort to excessive measures such as ten-day closures of educational institutions while a pesky little insect takes us all to school.

But here’s a question for anyone following the exorbitant amount of attention those damned mozzies have gotten in the media. With nearly five thousand reported cases and just under twenty deaths at the time of writing, could it be that the alarmist reaction of the government and citizens is just too much too late? With the majority of cases arising in Lahore, surely water supply and roads in the provincial headquarters have chalked up more hospital admissions and fatalities than your average self-respecting Aedes mosquito. So it may well be that the sudden shrill buzzing in your ears is not some pregnant mozzie out for a protein fix but the chatter of the media and politicians milking the situation for what it’s worth.

Rational health experts would tell you that your life is at risk if you have certain pre-existing conditions. If not, then, at worst, dengue will knock you out for a couple of days and you’ll end up being the wiser for it. And they would tell you that prevention is better than cure when you’re dealing with dengue. While the collective response to it has been correctly diagnosed as ad hoc and reactionary at best, the government is not entirely to blame for the snafu. As much as one would like to aim a pen at the Punjab administration for failures in service delivery, citizens are just as culpable for this epidemic (can we even call it that) if not more so.

To be fair to the mozzies, their appearance isn’t exactly an aberration. With the presence of ideal breeding conditions around this time of year, the only aberration was our inability to prevent their arrival. The gusto with which we now seem to be removing potential breeding habitats, spraying insecticide, and using repellent coils and mats may well have presented itself before dengue reared its ugly head. But people in Pakistan are rapidly refining the art of turning to government or God for solutions to their problems; all the while forgetting that the dole cheques can bounce (especially in the Punjab) and angels don’t exactly descend with bucket loads of permethrin for our homes and communities nowadays. Salvation may instead be found in the aisles of a convenience store which sells us a spray can, or that kindly sounding radio presenter giving us preventive tips. Indeed, divine providence may well be the arrival of Sri Lankan experts to assist us in the war against dengue, or the development of a genetically modified mozzie which breeds with normal ones and disables their ability to transmit the virus.

But Sri Lankan experts and the mozzie genome sequence are expensive to acquire and time-consuming to deploy. Similarly, low-income households find it difficult to divert their paltry incomes towards the purchase of repellent coils and lotions when they are already struggling with three square meals a day. So what do these people do? It turns out that the lemongrass plant (so ubiquitous in Pakistan) is the source of Citronella oil – one of the active ingredients in almost every mozzie repellent. All one has to do is grab a few leaves and crush them to release the oil that keeps the little suckers at bay. Being a renewable and naturally occurring resource, a provincial government with a soft spot for horticulture and charity may find it in the public interest to encourage the planting and usage of lemongrass in infested areas.

But horticulture, school closures and free treatment are not considered to be international best practices to halt the spread of dengue. What really works to combat the Aedes mozzie is raising awareness about its breeding habits amongst the masses. And that is precisely what the government is now doing. As long as they are at it, one columnist hopes that citizens can actually learn to manage dengue next year. Perhaps they could also learn to spell it correctly but maybe that’s asking for too much.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.