Joining the 390 Million Club

Wednesday June 26, 2019 Written by Published in Health
Tinirau McKay-Fox visits dad Derek, being treated for dengue fever in Rarotonga Hospital. 19061121 Tinirau McKay-Fox visits dad Derek, being treated for dengue fever in Rarotonga Hospital. 19061121

Derek Fox never saw the mosquito that bit him – but he is one of nearly 70 people thought to have contracted dengue fever in Rarotonga and Aitutaki this year. He tells his story.


It came as a shock to me and it may to you too, to learn that about half of the world’s population is at risk of getting dengue fever, and that (while no one can be absolutely sure) in recent times an estimated 390 million have contracted it on an annual basis.

In fact, the number could be much higher than that because many people don’t present themselves to the health authorities or they might be mis-diagnosed.

When I had my bout with the disease recently, I could have ticked both those boxes.

I felt lousy. I was aching, had a temperature and didn’t feel like doing anything. I could have just put it down to the flu, taken some Panadol and hung around home until it passed, and the experience around Rarotonga and the world is that’s exactly what many, many people do.

But catching me at a weak moment and probably because I wasn’t completing the 101 jobs she sets me each day, my wife ordered me into the car and took me up to the hospital.

Here’s where tick number two comes in. The doctor I saw declared that I had pneumonia in both lungs, prescribed some antibiotics and sent me across to the theatre to be given a shot of penicillin in the bum for good measure; then sent me home.

Next day I was no better and reluctantly I was carted back up to the hospital where a different doctor having determined that both my lungs were clear, carried out other tests including getting my blood checked out and declared that I had dengue fever. That’s when I joined the 390 Million Club.

It would appear that at some stage in the previous few days I had been bitten by a female Aedes aegypti mosquito, who at some time prior to that had bitten someone who already had dengue fever. I never met the mosquito that bit me, I don’t recall being bitten and have no idea where or when it happened; I don’t recall coming across a bite or bite mark.

Only the female bites humans and draws blood, the male of the species lives on fruit. And unlike most other mosquitoes, these bite during the day, not at night and tend to be very active around dusk and in the early morning. Having drawn the blood of an infected person, the female will go on and infect each person she subsequently bites for the remainder or her life, which can last about a fortnight to a month. In that time, she never travels more than about 500 metres.

Once I was diagnosed, I was hospitalised, put onto a drip for 12 hours or so, and isolated under a mosquito net to prevent being bitten and passing the virus on. There’s no real cure for the fever but treatment includes being closely monitored and given Panadol every four hours for pain relief.

The symptoms can be severe and include headaches, pain in muscles and joints, vomiting, bleeding gums with very high temperatures which can lead to seizures. Temperature and blood cell counts are closely watched and treatment often pretty basic.

For example, the only real way to get your temperature down is to sit under a cold shower; often several times a day. And my arms tended to feel a bit like pin cushions as the nurses searched for a new spot to draw blood for testing.

Symptoms can be so severe that people die; in Asia and Latin America ‘severe dengue’ has become the biggest cause of illness and death among children. I think as encounters with dengue go, I had a fairly easy time. Yes, I had a lot of aches and often severe pain initially and was pretty lethargic and I felt nauseous and off my tucker. I think the nausea also contributed to me feeling that the water – which I really needed to drink – tasted like sheet metal.

But I didn’t experience the bleeding gums and vomiting. Neither did I get the rash that often appears in the latter stages of the disease.

After four or five days I was feeling well enough to begin being a nuisance to the staff. I pestered them to let me go home.  

A few days later my temperature dropped enough and combined my promise to come back every morning for a blood test, I was allowed to go home.

It was definitely better being home in familiar surroundings. I started to eat again, I even tried a beer.  Each morning after dropping our son off at school, I headed up for my blood test and would usually meet a few mates for a coffee after that. But by the time I got home about mid-morning I was whacked. I invariably went and lay down for a couple of hours or more.

Getting over that took some time. Friends who’d had dengue told me it took them weeks, even months to come right. Again, I’ve been luckier than that.

But the dengue experience has made me more mindful about the possibility of other members of the family being bitten and infected.

I’m more likely to light coils in the evenings and pass around insect repellent when people are round for dinner.

I sometimes feel grumpy other members of our tiny whanau aren’t as diligent (I won’t name names) and I suppose that’s kind of understandable if you haven’t personally had the experience.

Prior to the 1970s, dengue fever was only reported in about 9 countries; today it’s endemic in more than a hundred countries where they just live with it.

The latest outbreak where more than 60 people have presented with the symptoms, is believed to have been started by a woman who came from Tahiti to the UB40 concert. I think I was the fifth victim diagnosed, and just after I was admitted, a tourist couple came in with it.

Dengue’s just one of the pesky tropical fevers we can fall victim to if we aren’t careful about protecting ourselves and our properties from mosquitoes.

The same mosquito that spreads dengue also spreads chikungunya, zika and yellow fever.

There are about four slightly different types of dengue fever and at least in theory, once you’ve had one you shouldn’t get it again; but it doesn’t necessarily protect you from the others.

Having had one dose, and a fairly mild one at that I think, I’m happy to pass on the others.

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