BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Thailand is experiencing its largest dengue epidemic in more than two decades, with a record number of people infected by the mosquito-borne disease and 126 fatalities so far this year, health experts said on Thursday, pointing to climate change as a factor behind the spike in cases.
"We are experiencing the highest number of cases in over 20 years, but the fatalities are not alarming compared to previous years, which shows our medical response is improving," said Sophon Mekthon, deputy director-general at the Ministry of Public Health.
More than 136,000 cases of dengue fever, the world's fastest-spreading tropical disease, have been confirmed so far this year, with the highest concentration of cases in and around the capital Bangkok and in the northern province of Chiang Mai.
Health officials say that unseasonably wet and warm weather due to climate change has made the situation particularly bad this year, reporting a more than a 50 percent increase in infections compared to 2012.
Dengue is transmitted by the bite of an Aedes mosquito infected with any one of the four types of dengue virus. Symptoms typically range from a mild to a high fever with severe headaches, muscle pain and rash.
There is currently no approved vaccine or specific drug treatment for the virus. Current approaches to treating the condition are focused on alleviating symptoms.
Thailand's Public Health Ministry says it is trying to contain the outbreak through nationwide fumigation campaigns to eradicate the mosquito breeding grounds, public awareness campaigns in rural communities, and newly set-up operation centres around the country to coordinate with provincial health offices.
"There is a misconception that dengue is a jungle disease but, actually it is more prevalent in heavily populated areas. Rapid urbanisation in Thailand and a change in weather patterns have contributed to the alarming spike in cases," said Sophon.
Thailand recorded its worst dengue epidemic in 1987, according to the health ministry, which saw more than 174,000 infections and 1,007 deaths that year. Experts say the country could see up to 200,000 cases this year.
The World Health Organization warned last month that the number of dengue cases across the world has grown dramatically in recent decades with "explosive outbreaks" seen in several regions.
About half the world's population is at risk from the disease, mostly in the developing world, but also in parts of southern Europe and the southern United States.
In Asia, severe cases of dengue have become a leading cause of death among children.