Deadly disease sets Philippine city on edge

Philippines - A deadly bacteria that may have killed up to 28 people in recent months has set the picturesque northern Philippines resort city of Baguio on edge, threatening the region's vital tourism industry.

An outbreak of meningococcemia, a disease that targets the central nervous system, has sparked panic and speculation as national and local governments, aided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) struggle to control the sickness.

The national government, with WHO assistance, has set up a special "command post" in Baguio with a laboratory to speed up detection and analysis of victims and track the spread of the disease, health officials said.

Baguio Mayor Braulio Yaranon has tapped a special fund, normally reserved for disaster relief, to buy medicines, laboratory equipment and other supplies to fight the disease.

For Baguio, a city of 350 000 people located some 205km north of Manila, the cluster of cases is more than just a public health concern.

Newspaper reports of the outbreak have hurt Baguio's tourism-centred economy, industry leaders say.

"It really caused so much decline in our business in the tourism industry in Baguio," said Anthony de Leon, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Baguio, citing sharp losses in two of the biggest resorts since the start of the year.

Baguio's public order and safety chief Emmanuel Reyes expressed concern that the annual "Flower Festival," a major Baguio celebration scheduled for February which normally brings in thousands of visitors, might be affected.

The Health Department has tried to reassure the public, saying the meningitis-like disease is not airborne and is spread by people sneezing or coughing or by the sharing of food, drink and utensils.

It has an incubation period of three to four days and symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, bruise-like rashes and eventually skin lesions.

But it can be prevented with simple precautions like maintaining clean surroundings, washing hands frequently, avoiding crowds and not sharing utensils with those infected.

If detected early, it can be treated with penicillin and other drugs.

The officials said there were medicines to prevent and cure it and even vaccines, although such vaccines were too expensive to be distributed to the general public.

Health Department records showed that almost 60 suspected cases of meningococcemia have been detected in the Philippines since last year with about 90 percent of the cases in Baguio.

Twenty-eight deaths in Baguio are believed to have been due to the disease since March last year.

However, due to the difficulty of testing for the disease, "only five actual cases have been confirmed with only three deaths," Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said.

Setting up the laboratory would allow the authorities to test for actual cases within the city, instead of sending the specimens to Manila, said Luningning Villa, head of the department's special unit on infectious diseases.

Some health experts have suggested that the cold weather of recent months had weakened Baguio resident's resistance to the disease. Family gatherings during the Christmas holidays may have also served to spread the bacteria.

Nerisse Dominguez, an expert at the WHO office in Manila, said many of the victims "went to the Baguio marketplace," a popular tourist attraction known for its handicrafts, fresh flowers and delicacies.

The Philippines normally suffers 80 to 120 isolated cases of meningococcemia each year but the outbreak in Baguio was unusual as the disease had not previously been detected there before last year, experts said. - AFP

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