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Empowering communities to respond to dengue fever in Central America

Jade, left, and her mother, Karen, are community volunteers with the Nicaraguan Red Cross. Before joining the Red Cross, Jade suffered from dengue fever on three separate occasions.By Carmen Chavarri
In the courtyard of a health centre in Managua, Nicaragua, a mother and daughter share a supportive smile. Their expressions convey joy and confidence as they share their story of survival and empowerment. Having both experienced dengue fever, they are now community volunteers with the Nicaraguan Red Cross vector control operation.
In 2019, the Central American region suffered the most extensive dengue outbreak of the decade. More than one million people have been affected by the outbreak, with the highest number of cases reported in Honduras and Nicaragua. The Red Cross is working in these two countries, as well as in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala, to empower local communities to both cope with the current crisis and to prepare for possible future outbreaks.
With the support of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), National Societies are working alongside communities in the most affected areas to equip them with the information and materials necessary to control and mitigate the effects of the dengue outbreak. This community-based approach is known as Community-Based Epidemiological Surveillance (CBES) and has been used in the region before with positive results in other epidemic crises, such as the zika epidemic of 2016. This strategy allows community members themselves to identify risks in their environment and take action to eliminate or mitigate them, empowering them to become active agents of change.
The first step of CBES is to identify social leaders who, working together with National Societies, organize community groups. Once these groups are formed, the Red Cross provides them with information on the outbreak so that they can identify warning signs. They are also shown what referral routes to health care are available if a potential dengue case is identified, as well as what hygiene and sanitation measures should be taken to prevent outbreaks. Based on this information, communities create risk maps and plans to implement prevention and mitigation measures. The final step of CBES is the implementation of these plans through breeding site identification and elimination campaigns. These campaigns include home visits and outreach activities in schools where they share the information they’ve learned about dengue prevention.

A life-changing disease

At a recent activity with community volunteers in Managua, Karen Rodriguez, a Nicaraguan Red Cross volunteer, shared her experience with dengue fever. Her daughter, Jade Gámez, had suffered from dengue three times, at the age of 11, 12 and 13. The last of those times, Jade had been diagnosed with severe dengue, and the girl suffered kidney and liver damage.
Children under the age of 15 are a particularly vulnerable group. In August 2019, 66 per cent of the deaths reported in Honduras as part of the current outbreak were of children under 15 years of age, and in Guatemala, 52 per cent of the severe dengue cases reported were also in this age group.
Having survived such a serious illness, mother and daughter are now volunteers with the Nicaraguan Red Cross. As part of the current operation, their work consists on replicating the information received among their neighbors, as well as carrying out clean-up campaigns to eliminate breeding sites in their community. "We both do the same thing - when one can't go to the clean-up activities, the other one goes," says Karen. For them, this is an opportunity to help their neighbors avoid going through the same experience they went through years ago.

"Now that I am supporting the Red Cross and I can help people, I feel calm, I feel happy," says Karen.

"More than anything, so that people don’t go through the same experience I went through," adds Jade.
Dengue fever outbreaks are cyclical and peaks occur around the world every year during rainy seasons, with extensive epidemics occurring at a frequency of every four to five years. In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized dengue as one of the top ten threats to global health, with an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s population currently at risk. Epidemics can have a devastating effect on the most vulnerable groups, such as children. It is therefore vital that we continue supporting the National Societies’ work to continue empowering communities to prepare and respond to dengue and other vector-borne diseases such as zika and chikungunya.

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