THE BLOG
03/11/2011 04:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dengue in Iquitos Peru

I've just gotten back from two months working in Iquitos, Peru and the surrounding jungle. There is an epidemic of dengue fever raging in the area. News of it has been stifled by the Peruvian federal government and what little news has been released has vastly downplayed the epidemic. It is an epidemic that should never have occurred: greed alone is responsible for it.

Here's the story: Every year, the federal government of Peru sends money -- accounts vary as to whether it's $2 million U.S. or up to perhaps $5 million U.S. -- to Iquitos for the spraying of mosquitos that carry malaria (genus Anopheles) and dengue (most often Aedes aegypti). The spraying is invasive: Teams of men spray the parks, the trees at the edge of town and throughout the town for days. Other teams go, neighborhood by neighborhood, house to house. You have to be home on the day they come to spray or they will kick your door in -- and you'll be fined to boot.

Once inside, part of the team looks for anything that might be a likely place for mosquito larvae: if you've got damp piled up newspapers or open bottles they take them, put them in the street in a big pile and burn them. If you've got empty plant containers with standing water they empty them. And then they spray. And spray. It's noxious stuff but it keeps malaria and dengue down. And they get everybody: They used to get my bar, The Cold Beer Blues Bar, and it kept customers out for the entire day it was so thick.

But last year the people who got the money evidently pocketed it and no spraying was done. And this year the same thing. When people began falling ill from dengue in January people protested. The local government claimed the money was never sent. The federal government said it absolutely was sent. And then people started dying from the hemorrhagic form of the disease and there were more protests. Trees were felled to block streets in protest of the non-spraying. By February the federal government sent more funds and spraying finally began. But by that time thousands and thousands of people were ill. For most it was a week of hell: Your body aches all over, you've got a stomach ache that causes you vomit unexpectedly, your head hurts, particularly behind the eyes, you can't eat or drink very much because it's near impossible to swallow and you can't sleep. And god forbid you eat pork or lime or a dozen other foods, even in small portions: They make your body itch unbearably from the inside, so that you can't get satisfaction from scratching.

And a lot of people started dying. In an effort to not ruin the tourist trade on which Iquitos largely depends, reports from the federal government were that there were a few cases of dengue, nothing big. But eventually a state of emergency was declared in Iquitos and the surrounding state of Loreto -- entirely within the northwest Amazon basin. The federal government -- unless it was done very recently -- never declared a state of emergency.

Nonetheless, the feds forked over new monies for spraying that's brought some control to the situation.

I had it and it was not good. My team -- the people I work with in the jungle -- forced me to go to a local clinic for blood tests after I'd been ill for three days. I thought I was just exhausted from having taken a group out to the jungle, or that maybe I was beginning to have a bout with my old nemesis, malaria. But the doc who read the blood tests said it was dengue. "We do not have the equipment in Peru to say with 100 percent accuracy that you have dengue but you have it. Look at your platelet count: You have about 100,000 and you ought to have 500,000 at least. So have someone with you at all times. You're at risk of hemorrhaging. The minute you see blood coming out of your eyes, nose or ears, get back to the hospital for blood coagulants and a transfusion if necessary. Because people are dying here."
"How many people are dying?"
"Hundreds."

Friends stayed with me for the next couple of days. Little red bubbles of blood popped up under my skin from capillaries seeping the thin blood. But I never hemorrhaged. A couple of neighbors were not so lucky. On my team, my man Jhon and his wife and four of his kids got it but also didn't hemorrhage. Neither did George. But we all knew people who died, and so when the official federal report out of Lima claimed that 14 people died in total, we were all outraged. So was everyone else in Iquitos.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine and no curative medicine. You buy paracetamol for the pain -- no aspirin or anything else that might thin the blood even more than the dengue -- and hope you don't start bleeding. And after a week, you're weak but okay. The docs say it takes about a month for your system to get completely back to normal.

The epidemic is dying down. It is currently being officially attributed to heavy rains (in fact it's not raining enough) and warm temperatures. Truth is, the money for spraying was pocketed for two years running. No one seems to know who exactly gets that money -- at least not publicly. And so no one is going to jail for killing hundreds and letting thousands of people get sick so that they and their cohorts could get rich.