Brazil Battles Mass Dengue Fever Outbreak

People with dengue fever symptoms await medical attention at Brazil's Air Force field hospital in Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro, Wednesday, April 2, 2008.Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral said he was considering asking Cuba to send doctors to help care for the victims of a burgeoning dengue epidemic that has infected over 45,000 people, killing at least 67.
AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes
Brazil's government deployed the army in Rio Monday to fight an outbreak of dengue fever amid squabbling between politicians over who should handle an epidemic that has sickened more than 45,000 people this year.

State officials said three new military field hospitals set up in Rio de Janeiro should help ease the shortage of hospital beds and take some of the pressure off emergency rooms packed with victims of the mosquito-borne disease.

"We have to enter into combat like we're fighting a war, to minimize the suffering of the population," said field hospital commander Maj. Roberto Tury.

Rio de Janeiro state, home to 16 million people, has seen more than 45,000 cases of dengue since January, compared to 25,107 cases in all of 2007, officials say. Fifty four people have died in the state this year, while more than 60 reported deaths are under investigation.

But as the proportions of epidemic became evident in mid-March, federal Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao singled out Rio's municipal authorities for blame, pointing out that dengue cases were down 40 percent across Brazil, while the number of cases in Rio had exploded.

He said city officials failed to heed warnings in November about an impending epidemic and failed to spray against the mosquitos early.

Rio Mayor Cesar Maia, who is a leading member of the opposition DEM party, refused to acknowledge there was epidemic until only recently and blamed the federal government for not warning the city in time to fight the disease. At the same press conference he announced his party would launch its own candidate for president rather than supporting a coalition candidate as they had in the past.

On Monday night, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said officials at all levels - including himself - are to blame for mishandling the problem.

"It is responsibility of the president, the governor, the mayor and each resident of this country," Silva said. "If we don't clean up the water in our home, our street, our city, our state, we will all be victims of irresponsibility."

Dengue causes high fevers, severe headaches and joint pains but is not usually fatal. More than half the fatalities have been children under 13 years of age, state health authorities said. Statistics on nationwide deaths were not available.

Brazil had more than half of the 900,782 cases of dengue in the Americas last year, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Of the hemisphere's 317 deaths, 158 came in Brazil, including 31 in Rio state.

Treating victims has been complicated by a shortage of pediatricians. On Monday, Rio de Janeiro Health Secretary Sergio Cortes requested 154 pediatricians from other states to help out.