By Zayne D'Crus, Australian Red Cross

When Pascoela Da Cruz’s four-year-old son suddenly developed a rash and high fever, she didn’t hesitate to take him to hospital. Pascoela completed a dengue-awareness training with the Red Cross in 2013, and the symptoms looked horribly familiar.

Pascoela’s quick response and Red Cross knowledge may have saved her son’s life. By the time hospital tests confirmed the boy’s second case of dengue fever, his platelet count had dropped so dramatically that an emergency blood transfusion was needed.

The new year has seen a sharp spike in dengue cases in Timor-Leste, as monsoon rains leave thousands of stagnant pools for carrier mosquitoes to breed. More than 160 cases of dengue have been confirmed since the outbreak in Dili alone, with one death so far – a three-month-old baby.

Also known as ‘breakbone fever’, dengue symptoms include severe headaches, joint and muscle pain. Multiple strains of the virus can circulate, increasing the risk of transmission. And because the disease is typically under-reported, the Red Cross believes the actual number of cases is likely to be much higher.

The Ministry of Health in Timor-Leste and the Red Cross of Timor-Leste (locally known as CVTL) are working together to contain the outbreak. While government health workers spray pesticide in areas with reported cases, Red Cross volunteers go door-to-door, giving families information on prevention and protection.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), through a DREF grant of 32,204 Swiss francs, is supporting CVTL in the awareness campaign, which is expected to reach 17,000 people during a three-month period.

IFRC health delegate, Dewindra Widiamurti says changing behaviour is the only way to reduce transmission of dengue. “There is no cure, no vaccine. You can only prevent dengue by cleaning your environment, throwing away things that can hold stagnant water and stop the mosquitoes from breeding,” he says.

The Red Cross, along with the Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation, is conducting refresher training in behaviour-change communication, and using feedback and questions from the community to continuously improve the information provided by its staff and volunteers. Brochures, banners, posters, handheld speakers and community radio will be used to reinforce prevention messages.

Based on her own experience, Pascoela is confident that the these efforts will prevent more dengue-related deaths. She’s also relieved that her son is back at school, after a short but restless week in bed. “When we left the hospital, the doctor said, ‘maybe I’ll see you again next January’,” says Pascoela. “But I immediately replied ‘No! We will be careful.’”

Learn more about what Timor-Leste Red Cross volunteers and others all over the world do to improve access to health, promote community empowerment and ultimately contribute towards achieving Universal Health Coverage.