Want to fight dengue effectively? Get access to communities with local volunteers

250 participants attend the Community Volunteer Dengue Patrol Forum at the 2013 ASEAN Dengue Day in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by: Sanofi Pasteur / Ruben Gralexander / CC BY-NC-ND

Every minute, a person is admitted to a hospital as a result of dengue, and every 25 minutes a young life is lost to the disease. Almost half of the global population is at risk — and even worse, that number is expected to grow.

Dengue — the most rapidly spreading vector-borne disease in the world — continues to spiral out of control, affecting more than 390 million people across the globe today.

We know that dengue is transmitted by an infected mosquito called aedes aegypti, which primarily bites during the day and breeds mostly in man-made water containers. It is linked to climate — the virus replicates faster, the mosquito bites more frequently and survives longer in higher temperatures. Furthermore, population growth, unplanned urbanization, lack of environmental sanitation, increased long-distance travel, and ineffective mosquito control have all contributed to the spread of dengue.

The facts speak for themselves, yet much of the associated risk with dengue doesn’t resonate with the world at large. Why not?

A less-talked about barrier remains in the way misperceptions can increase health-related risks. In reality, it comes down to understanding why a risk is real, and why people should care. Put simply, matters of health and healing are inseparable from culture. In order to ensure healthy living, it’s vital to base health promotion on a meaningful dialogue with the community to create and sustain change at community level.

This is where our network of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies volunteers have an  advantage. Our volunteers — who themselves are a part of the local community — know and consider locally-embedded beliefs, attitudes and everyday practices. Consequentially, they are better placed to raise awareness about actual and perceived health risks, as well as ways to manage these within their communities versus someone from outside.

Our volunteers know that cultural sensitivity matters. To further reach the most vulnerable, it’s imperative that our volunteers are recognized as a part of the community health workforce and their work acknowledged as an important contribution to public health.

In my previous experience with the Colombian Red Cross, I have seen the power and effectiveness of using participatory approaches and having Red Cross presence in each community to provide preventive and curative health and care services. This not only fosters community engagement, but also enhances the collaboration between the community and the formal health systems.

A combination of awareness and knowledge at community level, coupled with increased media attention, policy dialogue, investment in disease surveillance and long-term initiatives to fight dengue is urgently required to control the disease. Without these measures, hundreds of thousands will continue to suffer the burden of this preventable disease, in silence.

In the Americas, dengue cases have gone from practically being non-existent to countries like Brazil, Mexico and Colombia being counted among the top 10 most endemic countries in the world. Dengue has become a major public health issue in the region.

Since early October, southern China, for example, has been experiencing the worst dengue outbreak in 20 years with more than 1,000 cases popping up every day (as of Oct. 23, the case load had reached close to 40,000). Malaysia has seen more than double the amount of cases since 2009 and triple the deaths since 2013. Until we start to scale up and place more local volunteers in a position to act as a catalyst for behavioural change, those numbers will continue to soar.

Frankly speaking, dengue is far from the only disaster needing more scale-up and understanding of local cultural risk of which we continue to suffer the consequences. Whether it’s a silent disaster like dengue or non-communicable diseases like cancer and diabetes, or one the world sees headlines of daily like Ebola, volunteers and cultural understanding are at the core in implementing long-term change. They are the ones who break down barriers of understanding, enabling people to make well-informed choices regarding their own health and that of the community they live in, not solely reacting on risks with fear and mistrust.

We must all play a part in understanding these barriers when it comes to creating solutions that will — from the start — drive the change we so desperately need.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Walter Cotte

    Walter Cotte is under secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Walter has more than 40 years of humanitarian and development experience. Previously, Mr. Cotte was the National Executive Director of the Colombian Red Cross from 2008 to 2012. His past leadership roles with the organization include head of operations and disaster management, and as head of volunteers for relief and search and rescue.