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A rise in dengue fever

Dengue fever has plagued Argentina this year.

A woman sits in her hut in a rural area in the Argentine province of Corrientes Sept. 16, 2008. Cases of dengue fever were found throughout Argentina recently, but especially in the northern part of the country. (German Pomar/Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES — The world over, swine flu is the illness du jour. But in Argentina, the illness of the year — one that some say is worse than the swine flu — has been dengue fever.

As the southern hemisphere’s winter sets in and kills off the mosquitos that transmit the virus, Argentina is just beginning to come off its worst dengue epidemic ever.

The government has recorded more than 23,000 confirmed cases of the illness, with mercifully fewer than 10 deaths so far. But non-govermental experts say that the actual numbers may be many times higher.

“Argentina is en route to becoming a dengue-endemic country — that much is clear,” said Hector Coto, executive director of the Healthy World Foundation. Although the outbreak began and has remained strongest in the semi-tropical north of the country, every province in the nation has now seen suspected infections.

Some of the reported illnesses, especially those in the frigid Patagonian states, are believed to have been contracted when people traveled to dengue-endemic regions. But health officials believe the vast majority of cases, including some of those in temperate Buenos Aires, came from mosquitos right in peoples’ backyards.

This is a rude awakening for a country that had eradicated the dengue-carrying mosquito from its territory decades ago. But after 81 years without dengue, a few cases were imported from neighboring countries in 1997. A major domestic outbreak occurred the following year, and in the past decade there have been five more outbreaks infecting almost 3,000 people.

Argentina seems not to have fully adjusted to this new health reality. Groups like the Argentine chapter of the international NGO Doctors of the World have accused the national and provincial governments of negligence in treating the disease, and of denying the extent of the problem. Indeed, the congressional debate over whether to declare a health emergency in the worst-affected areas was suddenly silenced last month when Senate Majority Leader Miguel Pichetto declared, “We shall not place Argentina in the red zone of the world,” citing concerns about hurting tourism in the country.

The debate here is likely about more than medicine.

“I think it has deep cultural roots,” said medical sociologist Ignacio Llovet of the Center of Studies of State and Society in Buenos Aires. “I think there’s a deep resistance to admit certain things” that might associate Argentina with tropical neighbors that have historically had more trouble with health and development challenges, Llovet said.