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Thailand braces for 'mega-outbreak' of Dengue fever

 Thailand is bracing itself for an even worse 2016 with experts warning the number of infections may be on par with the 1987 mega-outbreak.

BANGKOK: After a year which saw an explosion of Dengue fever infections, Thailand is bracing itself for an even worse 2016 with experts warning the number of infections may be on par with the 1987 mega-outbreak.

Thailand recorded some 140,000 cases of infection last year, the highest number since the 170,000 cases of the 1987 crisis.

The first line of defense against the epidemic that has swept through Southeast Asia sees teams of local officials armed with machines spraying mosquito-killer, who patrol daily around Bangkok in an attempt to eliminate mosquito-breeding sites.

Officials have recorded 126 deaths with the most notable being TV actor Thrisadee Sahawong, who died after developing a series of complications related to the virus.

His death made the public realize that Dengue fever does not only affect those living in remote areas.

"More people are moving to the capital and that's why it's worse there than in the provinces or small towns. It's spreading because of urbanization and a lack of mosquito control," said Dr. Duangporn Pinsrilesikul from the Health Department of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration .

Thailand's Public Health Ministry is expecting Dengue cases to swell by more than 16 percent this year.

The reason for the rise is simple - mosquitoes have more places to breed now that chemical spraying is less effective and population clusters give the disease areas in which to propagate.

For many years in Thailand, Dengue fever was considered a disease that only affected children, but now most new cases reported are young adults, including patient Rath Sa-adying.

"While I had dengue fever, it also affected my liver. Since the dengue virus can cause liver damage, my liver became so enlarged that I couldn't eat anything," he said.

The virus starts with aching joints, a raging fever and a rash. If left untreated, it could lead to organ failure or even worse.

For decades, Thailand has been on the frontline of the fight against the Dengue virus. Finding a vaccine has proven difficult, in part because of the complex nature of the virus, but with the number of cases expected to rise again this year, the need for a vaccine is becoming increasingly urgent.

With the first Dengue vaccine already approved in Mexico, the Philippines and Brazil, Thailand is now under pressure to green light this long-term strategy to fight the potentially lethal disease.

"This vaccine is developed for about ten years but the vaccines is not 100 percent protection proof. We know that, but it is one of tools which can be helpful. In Thailand I think they plan to license this vaccine very soon. And once we've got the vaccine, I think it can reduce, somehow, the problems of the Dengue," said Kriengsak Limkittikul, an associate professor with the Faculty of Tropical Medicine of Mahidol University.

For now, Thailand's strategy is to eliminate breeding opportunities for the mosquitoes.

However, given the seriousness of the Dengue challenge, there are growing fears that the virus could be mutating as a result of the immunity that has built up in the region.

Without a preventive vaccine or cure, millions more will continue to suffer at the hands of a virtually invisible predator waiting to strike.