Dengue virus: German expertise in Brazil
2014 – the FIFA World Cup, 2016 – the Olympics: Yet the dengue virus is still a problem for Brazil, threatening not only the favelas but also visitors to the country. For this reason, the German Government is supporting the fight against the dengue virus as part of its international programme on biosecurity in Brazil and wants to help raise people’s awareness of the issue.
In the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, the dengue virus epidemic is particularly severe. “Dengue fever is a major problem in the poor districts of Rio,” (the favelas) says Dr Norbert Lehman, founder of the association IRESO e.V. “One of the reasons for this are the many unsealed water containers on roofs, empty cans, plastic sheeting and buckets in which small amounts of water can collect.” These are ideal breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. Other risk factors include the poor or non‑existent water sanitation in the favelas and bottles and cans lying in the streets. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) registered more than 180,000 cases of dengue virus infections in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2012, and these figures are rising.
However, the dengue virus is also dangerous for visitors to Brazil. “According to the Robert Koch Institute, in 2013 more than 700 German travellers returned from abroad with dengue fever, 25 of whom had been to Brazil,” says Dr Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, head of the virus diagnostics department at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg. He explained that although usually the only symptoms are fatigue and muscle pain, in the worst case a dengue virus infection can trigger a high fever with fatal internal bleeding and cause death.
To minimise the risk of dengue virus infections by the time of the Olympic Games in 2016, the Federal Foreign Office is providing around 506,000 euros to the Bernhard Nocht Institute and its partner organisations (UFRJ and IRESO e.V.) within the context of the German biosecurity programme.
Training scientists in Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics
In cooperation with these partner organisations, the Bernhard Nocht Institute organises regular meetings in central Rio de Janeiro and in the favelas and provides mosquito traps and teaching materials from Germany to train colleagues from UFRJ. The Brazilian scientists learn how to catch mosquitoes and then examine them for dengue viruses. The mosquito traps, which are specifically designed to catch the carrier mosquitoes, use special scents to attract tiger mosquitoes and yellow fever mosquitoes. A fan then sucks the insects into a net.
The German appliances were installed at UFRJ in August 2013. “We trained several research fellows at the university. They now know how to use the diagnostic devices and have demonstrated their skill in an international round robin test,” Schmidt-Chanasit says. They are able to examine any trapped mosquitoes immediately for the dengue virus and to provide reliable evidence of an infection in humans within a few hours.
In the run‑up to the FIFA World Cup, the focus was on the cities where the German team was scheduled to compete. The researchers gathered data and produced maps, thus enabling better assessment of the risk of dengue. In addition, over 150,000 mosquitoes have been caught so far. These insects are now being tested.
The project partner organisation IRESO e.V. and the Little Dengue Docs project help the researchers to gain access to the favelas particularly affected by the virus. Children and teenagers learn about the dengue virus so that they can teach their friends, families and neighbours in the favelas about dengue infections.
By the time of the 2016 Olympic Games, the aim is to establish where and when the infected mosquitoes lay their eggs so that the larvae can be destroyed at the right time. A further aim is to produce a map detailing the risk of dengue in all the Olympic venues.
German Partnership Programme for Excellence in Biological and Health Security
The project is part of the German Partnership Programme for Excellence in Biological and Health Security. The programme is run by the Federal Foreign Office, and involves other German scientific institutes as well as the Bernhard Nocht Institute. These include the Robert Koch Institute, the Friedrich-Löffler-Institut, the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. They are active in more than 14 countries. Activities range from awareness-raising, detection and diagnostics, to disease monitoring, laboratory security and the establishment of networks.
In this way, partner countries receive help to immediately recognise outbreaks of dangerous and highly contagious diseases, reduce infection and swiftly identify and eliminate the causes. One aim is to prevent any misuse of infectious agents that could also pose a threat to Germans abroad. At the same time, their work in the target countries also benefits local healthcare systems.