Mosquitoes bite back in Greece

Monday 22 October 2012 15.44
This year's death toll from West Nile Virus stood at 16 on 11 October
This year's death toll from West Nile Virus stood at 16 on 11 October

Just when it seems things couldn't get any worse for Greece, the exhausted and indebted country has a new threat to deal with: mosquito-borne diseases.

Species of the blood-sucking insects that can carry exotic-sounding tropical infections like malaria, West Nile Virus, chikungunya and dengue fever are enjoying the extra bit of warmth climate change is bringing to parts of southern Europe.

And with austerity budgets, a collapsing health system, political infighting and rising xenophobia all conspiring to allow pest and disease control measures here to slip through the net, the mosquitoes are biting back.

Already malaria, a disease eliminated from Greece in 1974, is not just returning with visitors and migrants - as it does from time to time in the rest Europe - but is being transmitted from person to person within Greek borders.

This year's death toll from West Nile Virus, a disease spread by Culex modestus mosquitoes, stood at 16 on 11 October.

It's a sign of the times that Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), a global medical charity more usually associated with the fight to save lives of babies in sub-Saharan Africa, is now working full time in parts of southern Greece.

In a country visited by 16 million tourists a year and where austerity measures mean up to 30% of the population is already struggling to access the healthcare they need, keeping infectious bites to a minimum is an economic necessity.

Yet far from coordinated, timely action, the rising threat from mosquitoes has instead brought a blame game pitching Greeks against foreigners, local mayors against national politicians and patients and doctors against ministers and officials.

"For a European country, letting this kind of situation develop and not controlling it is a big concern," says Apostolos Veizis, MSF's director of medical-operational support in Greece.

"You can't run after malaria. In a country in the European Union, we should not be running after a disease like this in emergency mode. Even in poorly-resourced countries in Africa, they have a national plan in place. What I expect from a country that is a member of the EU is at least that."

Outside one of Athens' oldest and most respected hospitals, the effects of the debt crisis that has brought this country to its knees can't be ignored.

The homeless sleep on streets and park benches, and a banner hanging from the Evangelismos hospital's main gate says "the health system is bleeding".

On a white bed sheet daubed in red and black paint and hung up by doctors who often work 36-hour on-call shifts and haven't been paid for them for months, it declares "no to more layoffs, no to a lack of supplies, no to making us work without pay."

Greece is in its fifth year of recession, with unemployment at 25%. Savage austerity steps have not proved enough so far and Greece now needs to make at least €11.5bn of new cuts to secure the next tranche of a European Union bailout.

Infectious disease experts here and at a European level agree that for now, at least in terms of patient numbers, the country's malaria problem pales beside its many other worries.

Some 59 cases of the parasitic infection have been recorded in Greece so far this year, 48 of which were imported either by migrants or returning Greek travellers. West Nile Virus cases are around three times that, at 159 so far this year.

Still, says Johan Giesecke, of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) cases of these diseases "should not be coming back".

"It's a serious problem," the ECDC's chief scientist says.

Giesecke and others believe climate change is part of the problem, as is the arrival of several new species of mosquito in Europe - including the Asian tiger mosquito known to carry dengue, West Nile Virus and chikungunya.

It's only a snapshot, but in this mid October, when many northern Europeans are putting on coats and boots, Athens still has shorts and flip-flops weather at up to 30 degrees and humid.

While Greece has had no cases of chikungunya in the past three years, the disease is popping up elsewhere in Europe - as is dengue, which is causing a large outbreak on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

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