The number of dengue cases across Southeast Asia has surged in recent weeks with governments stepping up preventative measures to stem the tide.

A rise in new cases has been recorded in Malaysia and Singapore, while Thailand has seen its worse ever breakout with 120,000 dengue cases expected this year.

A health ministry worker sprays anti-mosquito fog as a preventive measure to control dengue fever, in Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia. Pic: AP.

Director-general of Thailand’s health ministry’s Disease Control Department, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, said that there were currently more than 59,000 dengue fever patients, 68 of which had died, half of them children.

In Malaysia the government has called the situation ‘critical’ with the worst affected state being Johor where seven deaths have been recorded in the first six months of the year. Only one person died of dengue in Malaysia last year.

In Singapore, 552 cases of dengue were reported last week, down from the record 842 cases reported the week before. Overall cases this year has surpassed 12,000 with four deaths recorded, making it the worst epidemic in eight years, when 25 died.

The World Health Organisation has labelled dengue the world’s fastest-spreading tropical disease, representing a “pandemic threat” to two-fifths of the world. About 50-100 million dengue infections occur every year.

Transmitted by the bite of female mosquitoes, the disease is occurring more widely due to increased movement of people and goods, according to the World Health Organisation.

Symptoms involve a high fever, severe headaches and joint and muscle pain as well as nausea and vomiting. Although there is no specific drug to treat it, a vaccine is in the advanced stages of development, the WHO said.

“We’ve been watching dengue for a long time and we’ve seen a 30-fold increase in the last 50 years,” said Timothy O’Leary, regional spokesmen for the WHO Western Pacific Region.

While Singapore and Malaysia are noted hot spots, the WHO said dengue cases have increased seven or eight times in Laos and more than 50 times in the Pacific Island nation of New Caledonia. The Philippines is also seeing large rises in cases this year.

The disease is most prevalent in Asia and Latin America, but climate conditions have also seen more cases appearing in Europe.

Last year the continent experienced its first sustained transmission of dengue fever since the 1920s with around 2,000 people infected in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.

The WHO said they were working closely with governments to “proactively” clean and destroy known mosquito breeding grounds such as used tyres, flower pots and bird baths which all hold stagnant water.

Technology is being embraced in awareness outreach with Malaysia deploying a GIS-based web tool called i-Dengue to issue alerts, while Singapore last year launched an iPhone app – called X-Dengue – which sends alerts to people living in developing dengue ‘clusters’.

“Dengue isn’t going away. We have to deal with it and we have to deal with it proactively,” said O’Leary.