Physicians turned lawmakers want state to do more about dengue
HONOLULU - As the Big Island’s current outbreak of dengue fever continues to spread, the only two physicians who serve in the state Legislature are urging officials to do more to fight the debilitating disease.
Last week, state Rep. Richard Creagan and state Sen. Josh Green authored a letter to Department of Health Director Dr. Virginia Pressler highlighting some of their concerns. In the letter, both lawmakers urge Pressler to create special dengue teams to visit potentially infected patients in their homes. The lawmakers believe having infected residents unnecessarily exposed to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a known dengue carrier, could spread the illness even more.
"On route to wherever they're going, they'll be exposing other people to this disease and that's probably not a good idea,” said Creagan. “It would absolutely exacerbate the spread."
But in an interview with KITV4, Pressler said the state is already engaged in a comprehensive approach that includes urging those who are ill to see their physicians, telling those without insurance to visit community health centers, and having teams of paramedics visit areas where the homeless are known to gather. Pressler attended a community meeting Monday evening at the Hilo High School cafeteria where the current dengue outbreak was addressed.
"I guess we're doing something like what Sen. Green and Rep. Creagan are recommending,” she said by phone from Hilo. “But, we're not going door-to-door screening asymptomatic people because that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. We really do want people to make sure they're going through their health care system."
As of Monday, 46 Big Island residents had been infected with dengue fever as well as 10 visitors, bringing the total number of cases to 56. Fifteen of those currently infected are under the age of 18.
Although Hawaii has seen three significant dengue outbreaks in the past 14 years, the most noteworthy outbreak occurred on Maui in 2001 when 122 people were infected. Creagan believes the current Big Island outbreak could be worse.
"The trajectory in this outbreak is much steeper than Maui, and so that's worrisome," he said.
Both Creagan and Green say it may be time for Gov. David Ige to issue an emergency proclamation before dengue establishes itself permanently on the Big Island. Creagan said that would be a nightmare scenario for the island’s economy.
"I think businesses are going to suffer, hotels are going to suffer, tourism is going to suffer (and) real estate values are going to suffer,” said Creagan. “It's going to really hurt the Big Island big time."
Meanwhile, Creagan is also concerned about the welfare of his constituents since former dengue patients who are infected by a second strain of the disease have a much higher mortality rate. He says that’s a real concern since the Aedes aegypti mosquito has already established itself on the Big Island.
“Right now it’s type 1,” Creagan said of the outbreak. “So, if you have type 1 and then you get exposed and get sick with type 2, then you have a 20 percent chance of dying unless you’re treated appropriately.”
Creagan also wants the state to increase fumigation efforts, since he believes the current policy is focused on the containment of mosquitoes and not their eradication.
"They just spray in a 25 yard radius around the house (of someone who’s infected),” he said. “So, they aren't doing eradication, they're just doing short-term control.”
However, Pressler said many Big Island residents are opposed to large-scale spraying efforts and she’s satisfied with the current efforts.
“We’re really encouraging people to follow the Fight the Bite campaign,” she said. “Take some responsibility for their own yards and we’re also working together with the schools.”
Any Big Island resident who suspects they may have contracted dengue fever is urged to call the Department of Health at 808-933-0912. Those who are located on other islands are being told to call 808-586-4586.