Thursday, June 2, 2005

Mosquito war

The rain clouds of June are hovering over us, every now and then releasing torrents to ease our parchedness. In cities, particularly Metro Manila, a thick brown gray soup will soon inundate low lying areas for days and even weeks and play host to deadly vermin, insects and bacteria that will cause health problems and even death.

Classes are about to begin and many young school children will wade into deadly mini-rivers and absorb much of the filth of the city. Meanwhile, drug companies make tongue-in-cheek warnings like ``Bawal magkasakit’’ (Getting sick is prohibited) as if getting sick is a sinful desire.

A few months ago, my friend’s niece died of dengue. She had just graduated from medical school. All it takes is one deadly mosquito.

I bring up the subject of mosquitoes because of what befell TV journalist Reyster Langit, son of broadcast veteran Rey Langit (both of the Kasangga Mo ay Langit docu-type TV program). Reyster was downed by cerebral malaria and is now in critical condition in the US where he was stricken ill. His camera man Arnold succumbed. (I didn’t catch his full name but may he rest in peace.)

Reyster’s team, a TV report said, went to the Palawan jungles a few weeks ago to document what was happening among the Tau’t Bato indigenous community there. Children were dying of something. Footage of the team traversing the wilds was shown on GMA-7 ``Beinte Kuatro’’ news program. Everyone looked strong and healthy. Little did Reyster’s team know that what hit the mountain community would also hit them.

GMA-7 has been following up the story the past two days, even getting in touch with Rey Langit who is with his sick son in the US. It has also provided informative material on what cerebral malaria is. (Say, se’reebral.)

I don’t know the Langit father and son or anyone from the ``Kasangga’’ team personally but I always feel bad and concerned when someone from the media gets struck down in any way, physically or emotionally.

Last week I attended a seminar on ``Vicarious Traumatization of Journalists’’ which dealt mainly on the psychological trauma working journalists go through. The effects of these negative experiences are often bottled up inside.

Realizing that journalists undergo not just vicarious trauma, but direct trauma as well (as in surviving murder attempts and being under constant threat), the seminar organizers expanded the discussion. (We will come out with a front-page Special Report on this.)

What the ``Kasangga’’ team experienced in the aftermath of their Palawan foray—death and disease—is certainly traumatic. There surely is a lot to be learned from this. Preparedness is one of them.

I’ve had my share of jungle journalism. I’ve had my share of drinking from forest springs, bathing in freezing rivers, slipping on a mountain slope and grabbing on to poisonous bulan-bulan leaves that left my hands burning, encountering a snake, prying away bloody leeches, meeting with armed men and women, interviewing a mountain tribal priestess on a lofty mountain top. But, thank God, I had never fallen ill. Maybe the right mosquito or parasite did not find me. All I went home with always was an aching weak left knee.

I did some research on cerebral malaria and found a lot. A map of the Philippines shows which parts are endemic to malaria. The caption says: ``This is only intended as a guide since mosquitoes do not respect boundaries…’’ Gee, I wish they did.

A malaria website says that approximately 300 million people worldwide are affected by malaria and between 1 and 1.5 million die from it every year. Extremely widespread many years ago, malaria is now mainly confined to Africa, Asia and Latin America. The problems of controlling malaria are aggravated by inadequate health structures and poor socioeconomic conditions. The situation has become even more complex over the last few years with the parasites’ increased resistance to the drugs normally used.

Malaria is caused by a protozoan parasite of the genus plasmodium. The four species of plasmodium that can cause malaria are plasmodium falciparum, plasmodium vivax, plasmodium ovale and plasmodium malaria. P. falciparum is the most widespread and dangerous of the four. It could cause fatal cerebral malaria.

Malaria parasites are transmitted from one person to another by the female anopheline mosquito. The males do not transmit the parasite because they only feed on plant juices and do not suck blood. Of the 380 species of the anopheline mosquito only 60 or so could transmit the parasite.

Anophelines breed in water. Each species has its preferred breeding grounds, feeding patterns and resting place. Their response to insecticides also vary.

Plasmodium develops in the gut of the mosquito and is passed on to the insect’s saliva during a blood meal. The bitten victims’ blood carries the parasites to the liver where the parasites invade the cells and multiply.

After about two weeks, the parasites return to the victim’s blood and penetrate the red cells where they again multiply. The infected person could have chills, fevers and anemia. In cerebral malaria, the infected red cells obstruct the blood vessels in the brain. Other vital organs could also be affected.

Anti-malarial drugs could kill the parasite. Unfortunately, some parasites have developed resistance to the drugs. In endemic regions where people are often infected, people develop immunity. But children and pregnant women are highly vulnerable.

The word malaria comes from ``mal air ia’’ or bad air from swamps.

Some journalists are now arming themselves against assassins. We should also arm ourselves against mosquitoes.