x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dengue fever linked to corruption in Saudi

More than 700 people in Jeddah have been infected with dengue fever by tiger mosquitoes this year, but corruption is hindering the fight against its spread.

JEDDAH // The Asian tiger mosquito is becoming a source of terror in the costal city of Jeddah after it infected 147 people with dengue fever in the past week alone, bringing the total number of reported cases this year to more than 700.

City officials and environmentalists are blaming the municipality for not properly using the eight billion riyals (Dh7.8bn) allocated by King Abdullah to fight the disease in the poor neighbourhoods in the southern and eastern sections of the city. These are the same areas that were hit hardest by the floods that killed more than 200 people last November. Although no fatalities have yet been recorded, dengue fever is a potentially fatal disease leaving victims suffering variously from headaches, fever, muscle and joint pains, as well as vomiting and diarrhoea.

The criticism against the municipality rose sharply after a government agency, the Control and Investigation Board, last month accused six municipality officials of embezzling 100 million riyals out of the money allocated to fight dengue. Bassam Akhdar of Jeddah's municipal council told local media that the dengue fever had spread because of the municipality's failure to use the funds. Mr Akhdar, a member of the first publicly-elected council to oversee the city, said that the municipality had laid off 350 workers on the dengue control programme and this reduced the number of people available to spray the infected areas with pesticides.

Mr Akhdar also said that current workers have not received their salaries for two months and this added to the problem. He accused all the government departments in charge of combating dengue of failing to do their job. "The mayoralty has failed to eradicate dengue fever, and it's becoming of increasing concern to everyone. Even my private secretary contracted it," Mr Akhdar was quoted as saying. The deputy mayor for services at the Jeddah municipality, Hani Aburas, who is in charge of the dengue control programme, declined to comment on the reports and the spread of dengue fever in Jeddah.

The mayor of Jeddah, Adel Fakeih, sought to address the accusations against the municipality and said in a statement issued on Sunday following his visit to poor neighbourhoods infected by dengue that the disease's spread is natural because the period between March and June is the breeding season for the Asian tiger mosquitoes. "This is not a new thing to Jeddah. The only thing new is that the number of mosquitoes had increased compared to prior years," he added.

Mr Fakeih expects to see the number of cases falling in the coming few weeks as he has put together a new task force of 500 people to fight the disease. Other critics of the official response to the outbreak say that no matter the cause of its mismanagement, the government still is to blame. "It's too early to say that the funds allocated for fighting the dengue were misappropriated by the municipality but we have to admit that it's not doing enough to control the disease," said Asaad abu Rizaizah, professor of environmental engineering at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.

"The number of cases is high and alarming but we still didn't reach a disastrous stage because we haven't reported any deaths this year," he added. The Saudi environmentalist said at the beginning of the year the number of cases was limited and the situation could have been controlled but that now it might be too late to bring the disease under control. Mr Abu Rizaizah explained that fighting the Asian tiger mosquito, or aedes albopictus, will be very difficult because it breeds easily in any still water.

Critics are also attacking the municipality for the sewage lake on the outskirts of Jeddah they claim is a breeding ground for the dengue-spreading mosquitoes. Mr Abu Rizaizah, however, said that the mosquitoes favour cleaner water and that they breed in stagnant pools or running water. "The garbage dumps of the municipality are the real threat as the mosquitoes breed inside of cans, used tires and similar sources [that hold water]," he added.

"You can't have a dump as big as the one we have right now at the centre of the city and we expect the number of mosquitoes to fall," he said. "For years we have been warning of the situation in the old dump and only in the past two years has the municipality started its plan to move the dump to a new location away from the city," Mr Abu Rizaizah added. Mr Abu Rizaizah said that to fight the dengue fever, the municipality should use more creative measures than just spraying the stagnant water containers and pools.

"It's too late for us to eliminate the city from the Aedes but we can invest in developing a medical cure for dengue," he said. "We've allocated billions of riyals and we didn't manage to control the disease," "It would be better if we funded international drugs companies to develop a vaccine as they're aren't any vaccines on the market right now and the companies don't want to invest in the drug because it will be sold mainly to developing countries that can't pay for the expensive drugs," he said.

wmahdi@thenational.ae