Dengue alert: Scamsters, skeeters and suckers

Do you hear that distant buzzing noise? Listen carefully…it’s getting louder and louder.


Taha Siddiqui October 02, 2011

In years past, it would just mean a little added irritation when trying to sleep and the possibility of some pretty annoying and itchy bites. But now, this buzzing is enough to send people into a blind panic, cause schools to shut down and push an entire government into an overdrive of efficiency. Well, scratch that last part. The rest is still true.

The buzz in Lahore these days is that of the dengue carrying Aedes Aegypti mosquito, a tiny insect who’s gotten at least as much coverage as Michael Mullen or Jalalludin Haqqani. It’s the tiny drone that no dharna can stop from stinging. The miniature terrorist no operation seems to be able to control. Forget about Malik Ishaq or Mumtaz Qadri, in Lahore it’s the Aedes Aegypti who is public enemy number one.

Every corner of every street in every neighbourhood, now has one — if not several — wanted posters/dengue awareness campaign banners. Most of these focus on dengue fever prevention, the correct diagnosis through blood cell tests and finally the recommended medication.

Across the city, posters advertising the dengue helpline have been plastered by the Punjab government to provide information about the disease and report any malpractice or overcharging by profiteers, who are proliferating at least as fast as the much-feared mosquito itself. Yes, for some of our fellow citizens, the buzzing sounds less like a miniature chainsaw of doom and more like the sound of a tiny cash register clinging away, and the lingering aroma of pesticide that tickles our nostrils is like the crisp smell of freshly printed banknotes.

Yes, not everyone is on the losing end as far as the dengue outbreak is concerned — so let’s meet some characters for whom the dengue outbreak is more boon than bane.

 The ‘other’ doctors

“If the government gives us a chance, we can make dengue disappear,” declares a confident Dr Khalid Mahmood, a homeopathic doctor who has been in the profession for 40 years. “The allopathic lobby is blocking our access to the chief minister. Since the health department officials are doctors themselves, they want to publicise the pharmaceutical industry instead of us, as it spends a lot of money in lobbying for them,” he adds.

According to Mahmood, mainstream medical practitioners have no cure for dengue fever while his practice not only guarantees a cure but also provides ongoing protection from the virus. “India had dengue and they dealt with it through homeopathy,” he claims. “It is a cheaper method and we charge the same price for every medicine.” Certainly, the hundreds of patients thronging his office are testament to the fact that while the government may not believe his claims, there are many who do. And they are willing to pay good money for their peace of mind.

A second-generation homeopathic practitioner, Dr Mahmood says his medicines not only increase the blood platelet count within a week, but also improve the immune system. “I have been seeing 8-10 dengue patients daily and more and more people are coming to see me every day.” As proof of the efficacy of his treatment, the doctor claims that so far, none of his patients have died of dengue. “The government should realise that allopathic doctors have failed. It should look at other avenues to control this epidemic and we are ready to help,” he concludes.

The help Dr Mahmood is extending may or may not be effective, and the debate between allopathic and homeopathic medicine is too vast to get into here. But several of his homeopathic colleagues are making claims that frankly, are a little hard to swallow. Lahore’s Multan Road, otherwise known as homeopath central, is festooned with signs promising a dengue cure in three days, a claim that is untenable at best

A grave problem, even graver solutions

Multan may have snagged the ‘city of saints’ title, but Lahore is still Lahore (Lahore Lahore aaye). Everyday, thousands of devotees flock to Lahore’s many shrines with their hopes and prayers. Some want a new job, others want to be blessed with children and, more and more, many just want protection from dengue.

Located in the heart of the city, the shrine of Shah Jamal is frequented by men, women and children who come here to be blessed.  You come to the main entrance after climbing a narrow flight of stairs that leads to a veranda where devotees pray, facing the tomb of Shah Jamal. Today, most of the supplicants are praying to be delivered from the scourge of dengue.

Shaukat Baba has been managing the affairs of the shrine for decades, and he believes that once you pray at the tomb here, dengue will not affect you. “The salt here is blessed,” he says with a sage expression on his face. “Sprinkle it on your food, and whoever eats out of it will be protected,” he tells me in a tone that brooks no argument.

But that is not the only holy way of keeping the Aedes Aegypti at bay. “Eating the rose petals lying on the grave is also very helpful in preventing and curing those infected,” continues Shaukat.

Seeing that he’s clearly impressed me with his grave words, he takes this opportunity to ask me for a donation for the shrine. “Two hundred rupees will be good enough,” he says, as he disappears into a door next to the veranda after pocketing the cash. This door leads to the area where food for the shrine devotees is cooked. I am told a faith healer who gives out amulets can be found there but upon inquiry, I find that he is not feeling well today. Perhaps he found himself at the wrong end of a proboscis.

After a little while, a malnourished looking man in his late fifties comes and sits down beside me. Given the reverential looks the assembled devotees are giving him, he’s clearly the Big Man of the shrine. “Don’t worry about dengue, you have come to the right place,” he says. “Anyone who comes here and believes in our beloved saint is forever blessed and no harm can come to him.”  He points to a papaya tree inside the shrine and tells me that crushing the leaves of this tree and drinking the liquid can cure dengue fever.

I leave the shrine feeling somewhat superior and haughty, chuckling at the simple beliefs of the shrine-goers. That is, until I reach Lahore’s Mayo hospital. Here, handwritten notes and posters hang from the walls, instructing people to recite certain holy verses for protection from dengue. The caption above the prayer always reads: “Prayer for safety from dengue”. It’s pretty much the same story at the Ganga Ram hospital as well. I find myself in the middle of a flashback to one of the countless Bollywood movies I’ve seen, where the doctor removes his stethoscope and announces gravely: “Ab dawa nahin, dua ka waqt hai.”

Now many corporate offices are following the same practice, with notice boards displaying posters that instruct you how to save yourself from the dengue “animal” by means of prayer. That’s not all, on Lahore’s Mall Road, Minhaj-ul-Quran International has set up a relief goods camp for the victims of the flood in Sindh. At the camp a banner flutters proudly, offering a “free” prayer for dengue fever for those who make a donation.

Shop talk

Most retailers have dedicated shelves for mosquito repellents — including sprays, lotions and coils — throughout the year but right now in Lahore, these shelves are mostly empty. Mosquito repellants have flown off the shelves ever since dengue season began and shopkeepers say that anything that has the word ‘mosquito’ on it is bought instantly.

“All sorts of lotions, sprays, and electronic pest killers have flooded the market. But most shops have run out of items and that is why when the stocks refill, we have to pay whatever prices the  shopkeepers demand,” complains a buyer.

And those who can manage it, get their favourite products from other cities. “I looked all over Lahore for OFF! [a mosquito repellant cream], but I couldn’t find it,” says designer Kamiyar Rokni. “Eventually I had to have my aunt send me a box from Karachi.”

While buyers protest the lack of a price control mechanism and supplies, shopkeepers are using the opportunity to move merchandise that would ordinarily stay on the shelves for months. Imran, a store manager in Garden Town, Lahore, says that cheaper Chinese products are an option many are availing. “Earlier we used to keep European and American bug zappers but now, at half the price of these, we are supplying Chinese machines. We end up selling at least two to three every day.” That’s quite something, considering they’d previously only manage to sell one a month at best. This would be great news — if the machines worked. Unfortunately, not only are mosquitoes not attracted to the ultraviolet rays these machines emit, the zappers end up killing those bugs that in fact feed on mosquitoes.

Mosquito net sellers have also sprouted up across the city, with even roadside plant nurseries cashing in on the demand and selling green nets as improvised mosquito protection. Again, that would be great except that nets need to be coated with insecticide to work. These aren’t.

 Capitalism: one, government: zero

While enterprising Lahoris have been busy minting money, the government has been one, if not two steps behind. They started a spraying campaign long after the time for preventative spraying had passed. They decided to let the EDO health go on a three month holiday just as the outbreak began and now say that the virus will only be brought under control by mid-November — which is pretty much when falling temperatures cause the Aedes to take an extended nap in any case. If nothing else, this clinches the argument as to whether private enterprise is more efficient than public enterprise.

Mozzie-mania

Smell-o-vision: Mosquitoes can smell the carbon dioxide you exhale from up to 75 feet away.

Blood-sucking fiends: Considering the average intake of blood by a mosquito in a single bite, it would take approximately 1.5million mosquitoes to drain the average human body of its entire blood supply.

Olympic worthy: Every year the small municipality of Pelkosenniemi, Finland, hosts the World Championship of Mosquito Killing. The competition is open to all who wish to enter. The aim is to kill as many mosquitoes with ones bare hands within a five minute period. The current record of 21 is held by Henri Pellonpää.

Statuesque: The world’s largest mosquito has a wingspan of 15 feet! It is a sculpture in Komarno, Manitoba. The statue also acts as a weathervane, swivelling in the wind.

Gender bias: Mosquitoes prefer women rather than men as their victims.

Gentlemen prefer blondes: So do mosquitoes! Brunettes play second fiddle.

Chemical buzzers: The mosquito is like the American stealth helicopter; you only find out about it after it has left. When a mosquito bites, it injects a chemical into your bloodstream which reduces the pain of the bite and prevents the blood from clotting. Since the chemical causes a delayed response (itching), you can almost never catch the mosquito with its pants down.

Mozilla: The world’s largest mosquito, Toxorhynchites speciosus, can grow up to 1.5 inches. Also known as mosquito hawks or mosquito eaters, the larvae of the Toxorhynchites prey on the larvae of other mosquitoes and it has been suggested that they should be introduced to other areas in order to fight dengue fever. Don’t worry; these giant mosquitoes prefer to feed on nectar, for now.

Itchy and Scratchy: The size of the welt left behind by the mosquito is not related to the size of the mosquito or the amount of blood it has stolen from you. The size depends on your immune system’s reaction to the chemical injected by the mosquito.

Buzz Lighthear: The buzzing sound produced by mosquitoes is between the musical pitches of D and F.

Electric blue: Everyone has a bug zapper at home; it’s the box that emits the fluorescent blue light and makes a delightful little buzz every time a bug meets its doom. The problem is that it does more harm than good since it inadvertently kills insects that feed on mosquitoes. Remember, mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, not flashy lights.

Sleeping monsters: Floodwater mosquito eggs can remain dormant for years, hatching only when they are covered in water. Although adult mosquitoes have an average lifespan of five months, it may take several months for a larva to develop into an adult in cold water.

Beware the bite!

The tips that will save you a trip to the hospital and spare you the agony of lying on the bed helpless as people shove petals down your throat.

Hold your breath

Inhale and then hold your breath for as long as you can (perfect exercise for underwater diving as well) as mosquitoes can detect carbon dioxide being released in the air and sense the presence of the living. Once you are locked on the radar you cannot prevent these bloodthirsty pests from invading your peace of mind.

Bathe daily

Care less for the water shortages and more for your well being; shower daily and spray yourself with deodorant whenever you spot those sweaty patches. This way you’ll attract more people and fewer mosquitoes.

Say NO to exercise

The next time your significant other scolds you for not exercising, you shall have the perfect excuse — mosquitoes attack moving, living and breathing objects. Rest those muscles and say goodbye to your gym buddies for a while.

Don’t sweat it

Avoid perspiration — mosquitoes are attracted to moisture and odours. No need to head outdoors when the sun is shining proudly above you as you don’t want to draw in the mosquitoes by smelling unpleasant.

Stay cool

Mosquitoes can sense body heat, perhaps not from a distance but most certainly when they are a few yards away from you. If you don’t want your warmth to lure them in then stay cool, switch on that air conditioner and enjoy some ice cream.

Light colours are in this season

Bring on the khakis and white shirts to ward off the heat and mosquitoes. They are fond of dark colours, especially blue, so restock your wardrobe with light-coloured clothes.

Strong perfumes are a bad choice

Did you know that mosquitoes are attracted to floral scents? Well you do now so think twice before bathing yourself in the strongest perfume or cologne.

Wear clean socks please

According to scientific research mosquitoes love smelly feet, especially the bacteria that grows on human feet. An experiment was conducted by entomologist Daniel L Kline to lure mosquitoes with the help of dirty socks. It was successful; mosquitoes cannot resist the smell of 3-day-old socks. Need I tell you what to do now!

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd,  2011.

COMMENTS (4)

keith taylor | 10 years ago | Reply

It frustrates me that so many people make unwise choices when it comes to their health. Prayer and homeopathy are all well and good, but when my partner and I had dengue fever we put our trust in real medicine.

Medfreak | 10 years ago | Reply

Absolutely right! There's a much greater play at hand, dengue is a distraction.

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