Dengue fever epidemic hits South America

While the world continues to be on alert for a potential swine flu pandemic, South Americans have been suffering for months from one of the worst viral epidemics on record.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been sickened by dengue fever this year; more than 70 have died.

"This is the largest epidemic in many years," said Dr. Eddy Martinez, the director of epidemiology for Bolivia's Ministry of Health in the capital city of La Paz.

By mid-April, he said, there had been more than 55,000 suspected cases in Bolivia's eastern and southern lowlands, with 25 fatalities. Most of those were in Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia.

Dengue, a mosquito-borne virus endemic in lowland tropical regions around the world but little known in the northern hemisphere, struck particularly hard this year in Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Health officials say the disease is increasingly a problem in the region's densely-populated cities, and is spreading.

At the San Juan de Dios hospital here, where most dengue victims come, doctors treated about 100 people a day during the peak of the recent outbreak in February and March, according to Dr. Gonzalo Rocabado, an internist. They arrived by taxi and busload all summer long –mothers, fathers, children and grandparents, all with one thing in common: flu-like symptoms.

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