Rajesh Jeetah, Former Minister of Health

‘‘The eradication of dengue fever will not happen by simply dishing out vague advice’’

15 février 2024, 20:15


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‘‘The eradication of dengue fever will not happen by simply dishing out vague advice’’

Five hundred and thirty-nine active cases of dengue fever currently in Mauritius and 539 cases and 173 in Rodrigues, according to the communiqué of the Ministry of Health, complaints about the lack of proactivity in the prevention of the spread of the virus and fear that things might get out of hand. We talk to Rajesh Jeetah, former minister of health, about how worrying the situation is and we touch on his views on politics.

Some health professionals are sounding the alarm about an outbreak of dengue fever in the country. As a former minister of health who has had to deal with a similar situation in 2010, do you think there is any reason for us to be worried at this stage?

The health professionals are right in sending severe alarm signals and I am worried too while going through the data provided by the Ministry of Health. It would seem that dengue fever is widespread in the north and can now be found in many regions in the south.

What exactly are you concerned about?

My major concern is that the current dengue virus has claimed two lives out of which one was directly related to dengue fever. When we had the outbreak, my main concern was to stop the virus from spreading and diminish the risk of it potentially mutating or attaining the hemorrhagic state that we currently have to face.

Around 539 cases in Mauritius and 173 in Rodrigues. How does the situation compare to 2009/2010?

When we had the outbreak in 2009, we took prompt measures that contained the disease. It did not have the opportunity to spread as it is currently the case. Thus we had fewer cases.

The authorities are calling for collective responsibility in combating the epidemic, urging people to eliminate mosquito breeding sites. Good advice, isn’t it?

The eradication of dengue fever will not happen by simply dishing out vague advice. We need a comprehensive approach and several key strategies. In 2010, our public awareness campaigns were clear and specific and we managed to educate the population about dengue fever prevention measures such as eliminating standing water, using mosquito repellents and wearing protective clothing. But more than that, we did not put the full responsibility on the citizens. We implemented rigorous mosquito control measures including larviciding and fogging in high-risk areas to reduce mosquito populations through scientific and statistical tools. We also strengthened our healthcare system by improving surveillance and early detection of dengue fever cases, ensuring prompt treatment and isolation to prevent the spread of the disease. We also sought and obtained the collaboration of international organisations and neighbouring countries allowed us to access resources and expertise to effectively combat the virus. We acted on all fronts to eradicate the dengue virus.

Isn’t that what the government is doing now?

I don’t currently see any campaigns informing the population about dengue fever, its symptoms and methods of prevention. I don’t see any larviciding strategically applied to bodies of standing water, such as ponds, stagnant pools and water containers, to kill mosquito larvae before they mature into adult mosquitoes, unlike what we did in 2010.

There is fogging ongiong on as we speak, isn’t there?

Maybe but what I don’t see is any surveillance systems in place to promptly detect and report dengue cases. This includes training healthcare workers to recognise dengue symptoms and report suspected cases to the health authorities. None of that is happening. Are there isolation protocols to prevent the spread of the virus to others? Is there any collaboration with international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and neighbouring countries? Any exchange of information, technical assistance or support in implementing effective strategies? No. We did all that in 2010. That is how we eradicated the virus.

Why is there need for seeking the help of WHO and other international organisations? Is the situation that bad?

We do not operate in isolation. We are part of a global system and there is in theory continuous communication between WHO, the Ministry of Health as well as other agencies. For instance, when we had H1N1, I took it upon myself to call the British chief medical officer and seek his advice. The health of a nation stands in the hands of the minister and he has to put all the chances on his side in times of crisis. The situation is certainly very bad and we must use all the resources available at home and abroad to deal with it. We have a large number of practitioners who worked towards the eradication of dengue fever in Mauritius. Those include chief medical officers, Internal health physicians, officers in the sanitary department, logistics experts, the army, an epidemiologist, officers of the CDC Unit, former senior chief executives, private equipment and chemical suppliers and the list goes on. All this is on file at the Ministry of Health and the experience is only a phone call away. I do not have any doubt they would happily share their experience. Local leaders, community organisations and schools should also be involved in spreading awareness. We learnt this the hard way when we went straight into the suburbs of Port Louis and started fogging. People hadn’t been informed and they started protesting. We had to return and gather the community and we explained. The situation changed.

Wasn’t the health system overstretched with the prevalence of other epidemics like the Chikungunya and H1N1?

Well, it was a major challenge as dengue made its appearance when we were still tackling the tail end of Chikungunya and the start of the new pandemic – H1N1. However, as soon as I informed the PM and cabinet, I had all the support required and resources were made readily available to my ministry. And dengue became just a short chapter in our history.

As a politician, how do you see the situation evolving between now and the next general election?

As we speak, a minister learns that he had been revoked revoked as soon as he lands at the airport. An interesting fact is that he was given the opportunity to serve as president of the district council upon the recommendation of the three members of parliament of constituency No 10, that is Jim Seetaram, Cader Sayed Hossen and myself, to the then PM, Dr Ramgoolam. Coming back to the current situation, I suspect the plan of the current government has taken yet another serious hit in an election year. I believe the silent majority is quietly observing the misdeeds of this government and will express their feelings in the ballot box.

Some political observers are saying that though the government is unpopular, you are not necessarily getting those votes as most people (70% according to some) are undecided. Bad, isn’t it?

I agree that the current government is very unpopular despite believing that money can buy everything. Some voters might be tempted but many do have a conscience. The elections of 2019 were neither free nor fair, therefore we didn’t lose. I reiterate my challenge to whoever wishes to dispute this to show us how to use a golden ruler to reproduce the neatly stacked ballot papers in the ballot boxes as was the case in constituency No 5 in 2019. Not only that, character assassination of opponents figures high in the tool box. People are slowly realising this and they will have to take the decision they deem fit when the time comes.

Most people think there will be a snap election soon, particularly with the resignation of Vikash Hurdoyal. Still, the opposition alliance is sleeping soundly and waiting. Is it waiting to be caught by surprise?

If you watch the MBC, which has now become a national cause of embarrassment, you can be forgiven for believing that the opposition is non existent. Our alliance, that is the Labour Party, the MMM and the PMSD, is active at grassroot level in all corners of the island. The enthusiastic crowd following this alliance is encouraging. May I remind you that we have two former prime ministers and a former deputy prime minister. All these leaders could have quietly retired and enjoyed a good life. Instead, they are all engaging with the population, holding regular meetings, giving their time and efforts towards fighting to prevent Mauritius from becoming a totalitarian state. Have you seen the proceedings of the parliament? What a disgrace!

On a personal level, what are you contributing to this alliance?

I form part of a group working towards the preparation and training for elections in the 20 constituencies. And we are doing very well. We certainly are not fast asleep.