The popular holiday destination of north Queensland has been gripped by an epidemic of dengue fever, the debilitating and sometimes fatal disease more usually associated with Third World countries.
In the tourist centre of Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, 226 people have been infected including babies and young children, with another 31 cases in Townsville, 200 miles down the coast. Two nasty strains of the virus are circulating, and health authorities say they have never known the disease to spread so fast.
The state government will hand out free mosquito repellent in schools this week, and has warned residents to watch out for stagnant water in their backyards where the dengue-carrying mosquitoes breed. Roving extermination teams have been dispatched to spray parks, schools and caravan sites, and authorities have launched a radio and television campaign aimed to raise awareness. The government fears this summer could be worse than 2004, when more than 800 cases were recorded, and two people died. Usually the dengue season does not start until February, the height of the wet season. This summer, it began in November.
Environmental health officers warn that anywhere water collects is a potential breeding site: plant pots, buckets, birdbaths, wheelbarrows, blocked gutters and old tyres. Water tanks, which Australians have taken to installing to counter the long drought, are also a problem if not properly sealed. In one case, mosquito larvae were found in a small indentation at the top of a candle.
About 20 new cases are being reported in north Queensland every day, and doctors say victims are falling sick more quickly than usual, and getting sicker. Hospitals are struggling to cope, and blood supplies are running low because blood donated in affected areas has limited use.