Mystery virus raising alarm

Wednesday 5 May 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Health, National


Mystery virus raising alarm

As a mystery virus continues to baffle public health officials, residents are expressing concern over Government’s response.

Community members are increasingly expressing alarm as health officials try to identify a mysterious virus that has been spreading amongst residents in the last several months.

The infections have been occurring at the same time that a type-2 dengue outbreak grows on Rarotonga and several outer islands. To date, government said there have been 343 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases and 38 hospitalisations recorded since early February.

A number of residents have experienced the tell-tale symptoms of dengue fever, however blood tests carried out by Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health (TMO) have returned negative results.

It is not known how many residents have been infected with the unnamed virus.

Last month, Rarotonga resident Fiona Pearson said she became ill with symptoms similar to dengue, however her blood test was returned “negative” for the virus.

Pearson said she has heard of many similar cases where tests have been returned negative, and is concerned with how TMO is responding to the situation.

“So many people with textbook dengue symptoms are being told they don’t have it, and so no action is being taken by TMO as a result of these ‘negative results’,” she said. 

“If the results are wrong for whatever reason, then the dengue outbreak is way worse than being officially reported. And if the tests are correct, and it’s not dengue, then there is another unnamed but equally debilitating virus going around that again, nothing is being done by TMO to manage.” 

Pearson said failing to respond to the outbreak effectively could result in a “PR disaster” for the Cook Islands, as the country prepares to welcome New Zealand tourists this month as part of the travel bubble announced earlier this week.

PHOTO: CI NEWS. 14030402

Dr Anura Jayasinghe, a public health specialist with TMO, said blood samples must be sent to New Zealand to determine the exact strain of dengue or the specific virus an individual may be infected with.

TMO did not respond when asked when was the last time officials had sent blood samples to NZ for analysis, however Jayasinghe said previous analysis on samples done in NZ did not reveal the presence of Zika or Chikungunya in the Cook Islands.

Both are mosquito-borne viruses with symptoms similar to dengue, however Zika can have serious health implications and has been known to create pregnancy complications including malformations, preterm birth, and miscarriages.

Determining which type of virus may be in transmission amongst the community at the same time as the type-2 dengue outbreak currently affecting the country will require further investigation, said Jayasinghe.

“There are many types of viruses, so based on the clinical presentation, it’s not easy to give an answer,” he said.

“I am working with my team to get more information on these dengue-like infections.”

When blood tests are returned positive for dengue, TMO typically sends out a team to spray the residence where the sick individual resides, targeting mosquito breeding areas in an effort to contain the outbreak.

But as admitted by Jayasinghe, the homes of sick residents who have tested negative but exhibit ‘dengue-like symptoms’ are not being sprayed, causing alarm amongst the public.

Matavera Puna team during a dengue clean-up campaign and dengue spraying late last year. Photo: MATAVERA PUNA/21020310

Last month, Rarotonga resident Mike Steele said he became sick with what he believed was dengue, however two subsequent tests came back negative for the virus.

“As a 32-year-old male, it’s the sickest I’ve ever been,” he said.

Steele said he was in bed for a week straight, with severe pain behind the eyes, sensitivity to light, sweating, a rash, swelling and itching in the hands and feet, loss of balance, extreme fatigue, and a headache which felt like “a constant migraine”.

He described the symptoms as “seriously debilitating”.

“I have a pregnant wife and elderly neighbours and family,” he said. “To have no diagnosis as to what illness I had made me really nervous as I wasn’t sure if I was infectious to others hence I locked myself in my room for a week straight.”

Steele said he was surprised he couldn’t get an answer from health officials as to what had made him sick. He said his neighbours also came down with a similar sickness and symptoms.

Repeated calls to TMO to have his property sprayed were futile, he said.

“I understand Covid-19 is in the spotlight but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that there are other serious health issues to deal with,” he said.