Department of Health officials have stepped up their dengue fever education campaign as the number of severe cases of the disease reported on St. John continued to climb.
Borne by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, dengue fever can vary greatly in severity, from causing a minor headache to the life-threatening dengue hemorrhagic fever. St. John resident Sandie Brown died in August reportedly from complications from dengue hemorrhagic fever, which attacks platelets in the blood stream.
Since then at least three additional cases of dengue fever have been reported on St. John. In the St. Thomas/St. John District — which is how DOH keeps records for the disease — there have been 66 reported cases of dengue fever, according to officials.
Of the 66 cases, 20 have been confirmed dengue fever, 39 were listed as “suspected” and seven were listed as “probable.” There have been no confirmed cases of dengue fever on St. Croix, according to DOH officials.
The department’s Environmental Health Division is scheduled to fog for mosquitoes on St. John on October 14 and 26, and urged residents to remove all standing water on their properties in an effort to limit the insects’ breeding grounds.
As news of severe cases of dengue fever spread across St. John in recent weeks, Family Nurse Practitioner Judith Whitley emailed patients and friends urging them to take the disease seriously.
Whitley advised anyone with flu like symptoms — fever, rash, headache or muscle pain — to seek immediate medical attention and get a complete blood count.
“There have been many deaths in Puerto Rico and several here,” Whitley wrote. “Take this seriously.”
Just as severe as the form of dengue fever being reported on the island is the lack of platelets in local blood banks, according to Whitley.
“Recommendations were made a year ago for Schneider Hospital to utilize their blood bank and donate blood products to the Red Cross in exchange for platelets, which are needed for dengue,” said Whitley.
That recommendation, however, has yet to be implemented. If platelets are needed, they must be sent from Puerto Rico, which can take hours, time critical for a patient whose platelets are quickly dropping as a result of dengue hemorrhagic fever, as St. John resident Debbie Hayes can attest.
Hayes was still recovering from dengue fever last week, although the worst of her symptoms were over, she explained.
“I woke up on Sunday morning to go to Sandie Brown’s memorial and I was really sick,” said Hayes. “I had a horrible headache, a very high fever and unbelievable body pain. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hayes immediately went to the doctor, where she had blood taken for a dengue fever test, the results of which were not available as of press time. Despite being the “perfect patient,” Hayes watched as each blood test over the next few days revealed her platelet levels plummeting.
“I came down with this on September 5 and I just stayed in bed and drank plenty of liquids,” said Hayes. “I had a fever between 102 and 104 degrees. My doctor told me I had to go get blood tests and I knew my platelets were dropping.”
A healthy adult’s platelet count will range from between 150,000 to 400,000 and Hayes, was down to 95,000, then 70,000 and quickly even down to 60,000, she explained.
“At that point, when my platelets got down to 60,000, they wanted to test me every day,” said Hayes. “I was just staying in bed and drinking liquids and there was nothing to do about it.”
Several days later, Hayes went to see Dr. May Trieu, an acupuncture practitioner.
“She treated me twice in a three-day period and I really feel that doing the acupuncture was incredibly helpful to me,” said Hayes. “Within 12 hours my fever was down to 99 degrees and within the three days my platelets had doubled.”
While there is no treatment or cure for dengue fever or dengue hemorrhagic fever, Hayes certainly felt relief from Trieu’s treatments.
“I know this severe form of dengue is going around and I just wanted to let people know that this really worked for me,” said Hayes.
Health officials urge anyone with flu-like symptoms to get tested for dengue fever, which currently costs about $200, but could be free, according to Whitley.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Puerto Rico do offer free dengue screenings, but the program has not been implemented in the Virgin Islands, according to Whitley.
In the meantime, DOH officials have been ramping up their dengue education campaign and last week the department’s epidemiologist warned of the seriousness of the current outbreak of the disease.
“People can die if they don’t seek immediate care,” said Dr. Eugene Tull. “Compounding this dengue fever outbreak is a flu outbreak, symptoms of which mirror dengue fever.”
To report dengue fever cases, DOH officials urge healthcare providers to call 773-1311, ext. 3241. To report large pools of stagnant water, contact the Environmental Health Division on St. Thomas at 774-9000, ext. 4641. For more information on Dengue Fever, visit www.healthvi.org.