The Dallas Morning News
February 17, 2002

Cuba fights worst dengue fever outbreak in decades

                  2 dead, hundreds infected; some protest fumigation efforts

                  02/17/2002

                  By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

                  HAVANA Thousands of Cubans have taken to the streets to combat dengue fever,
                  which has killed at least two people and infected hundreds of others in the worst
                  outbreak the capital has seen in more than two decades.

                  Mosquitoes are blamed for spreading the tropical disease, which has seen explosive
                  growth in the Americas in recent years, reaching as far north as Texas.

                  In Cuba, President Fidel Castro has vowed to stop the outbreak in its tracks,
                  hunting down every last mosquito "even if it's one by one."

                  "The mosquito has no possible chance of escape. We've got the entire populace
                  fighting the epidemic," he told reporters earlier this month.

                  A 1981 epidemic killed 158 Cubans, including 51 children, in what was later called
                  the worst single outbreak of dengue fever.

                  Mr. Castro blamed the United States for that episode. He accused covert agents of
                  introducing the virus as part of a biological warfare campaign, an accusation the U.S.
                  denied.

                  This time around, Mr. Castro blames a black mosquito known as the Aedes aegypti,
                  a dime-size bug that bites during the day.

                  The mosquito thrives in crowded cities and breeds in stagnant water. The female
                  requires blood for its eggs to mature and humans are a convenient target.

                  In January, Cuban authorities dispatched the first of 11,000 workers to fumigate
                  every home and building in Havana, the eastern city of Guantánamo and the
                  western town of Pinar del Rio.

                  Workers carry what they call "bazookas," a shoulder-held device that resembles a
                  leaf blower and fills the air with white plumes of insecticide.

                  Residents who refuse to let the workers fumigate face fines and possible jail time.
                  But the anti-mosquito campaign has broad public support and very few people
                  interfere.

                  "We have to help for everyone's well-being," said Ana Rosa Menendez, a
                  57-year-old retiree.

                  "The fumigation doesn't bother me at all because it kills cockroaches, too," said
                  another resident, Yamila Chanfrau Santos, 39, a secretary.

                  American officials refused to let workers fumigate the residence of Vicki Huddleston,
                  the chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba. An official explained that there was some concern
                  about the insecticide used.

                  "We don't know what's in it," he said.

                  Marta Beatriz Roque, a dissident and economist who has served jail time for her
                  opposition to the socialist regime, also had concerns.

                  The first fumigation of her house made her sick, she said. So when workers
                  returned a second time, she refused to let them in.

                  She said she was detained in what turned out to be the first of four arrests for
                  failure to comply.

                  Authorities also fined her 600 Cuban pesos, or about $23, which is about what a
                  surgeon on the island earns in one month.

                  Before workers fumigated for the third time, she said, about 15 policemen
                  surrounded her house.

                  "It seemed like they came to arrest a terrorist or a murderer," she said. "They took
                  me to the command post for mosquito control. They took away my key, came back
                  to the house and fumigated."

                  She said she was also arrested when workers returned for the fourth and fifth
                  sprayings and she was strip-searched each time by female security agents who were
                  ostensibly looking for her house key.

                  A female friend who was in her house when the workers arrived also was taken away
                  and strip-searched, Ms. Roque said.

                  "They do it to humiliate you," she said.

                  Government authorities deny mistreating dissidents. Mosquito control officials did
                  not respond to an interview request.

                  Dengue fever has been around for at least several hundred years. Philadelphia
                  doctor Benjamin Rush called it "breakbone fever" in 1780 because of the terrible
                  joint and muscle pain it can cause.

                  Dengue outbreaks have traditionally hit Africa and Asia, but cases in the Americas
                  have been rising over the last two decades, stretching into Mexico and southern
                  Texas.

                  Some 2.5 billion people are at risk, and more than a million cases are reported
                  every year, the World Health Organization says.

                  According to state-run media in Cuba, the current outbreak had as of the end of
                  November infected more than 1,600 people in 96 of the country's 169
                  municipalities.

                  Roof-top water tanks are one of the insect's favorite homes in Havana. They often
                  are found in spiritual water, too.

                  Many Cubans leave out glasses of water for Afro-Cuban gods or Catholic saints.
                  Authorities are now warning people to change their spiritual water every two days or
                  risk infestation.

                  As part of the campaign, workers have also picked up thousands of tons of trash
                  where mosquitoes might be breeding and hiding out. They are spending $25 million
                  to repair or replace thousands of leaky water pipes. And they are distributing free
                  covers for residents' outdoor water tanks.

                  "It's an aggressive and effective campaign," said Bacilio Hernandez, 41, a Havana
                  taxi driver who recently recovered from dengue. "I don't think there will be a single
                  mosquito left in Cuba after this offensive against dengue."

                  But that won't be the end of it. After the mosquitoes are gone, Mr. Castro said, he
                  plans to go after another disease-spreading creature:

                  The rat.