Weathering the storm

Several health scares have made the news this year, most of them linked to climate conditions. Derek Rodriguez asks NTU experts whether there’s a need to worry and how we can protect ourselves from them

Fly in the face of dengue

Over 6,000 dengue cases have been reported in Singapore this year, with four people succumbing to the disease so far. It is feared that the number of dengue cases will break the previous record of 22,170 reported cases in 2013.

“It isn’t just a problem in Singapore. The increase in Aedes mosquito activity is caused by a combination of factors, including climate, increasing population density, increasing mobility between dengue endemic countries and possibly also viral factors. Other countries in the region are affected by it too,” says Prof Annelies Wilder-Smith, an expert in infectious diseases at NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

Dengue causes a sudden onset of fever, headaches, body aches, joint pains and nausea. “Consult your doctor if you have these symptoms, especially if they persist over a few days,” advises Prof Wilder-Smith.

“If you do have dengue, there is no known remedy for it, but intravenous fluids and close clinical monitoring can help you recover.”

Prevention is the best form of cure when it comes to dengue fever. The Aedes mosquito breeds in clean and stagnant water, so make sure you pour away any water in pails and pots after a rainy day.

Fish in troubled waters

Reports of Singaporeans suffering from food poisoning after eating raw fish dishes have been in the news. In one account, a patient had his limbs amputated. In the wake of these reports, many restaurants replaced raw fish ingredients with substitutes like lobster and abalone. “It is definitely possible for raw fish to cause severe illness,” says Prof Jorgen Schlundt, an NTU expert in food science and technology. “Some pathogenic bacteria in food just give you diarrhoea, but others can make you seriously ill, especially if they enter the bloodstream.

“This is called sepsis or blood poisoning. About one third of patients who develop sepsis lose their lives. Those that survive can face serious outcomes, including the amputation of their limbs.”

It’s not the end of the world for sashimi lovers, however. If raw fish or meat is treated hygienically, it should be very safe to consume. Contamination can occur in every part of the food production chain, so safe practices have to be adopted throughout the industry. The fish consumed in the incidents in question was most probably not prepared using hygienic practices.

Adds Prof Schlundt: “Just remember to follow these rules – keep clean, separate raw and cooked food, keep food at safe temperatures and use safe water.”

Hot under the collar

A national record was set this year when the average temperature clocked in at 30.6˚C on 19 April. Choa Chu Kang officially became the hottest town in Singapore, with the mercury hitting 36˚C. Outdoor activities at schools were curtailed and air-conditioners worked overtime during this period. But did the heat bring merely discomfort or more serious health implications?

“Thankfully, there are no health risks as long as you avoid prolonged exposure. If you do stay outdoors, an umbrella or sunscreen is necessary as too much sun exposure is linked to the development of certain skin cancers,” says Asst Prof Stephen Burns from NTU’s National Institute of Education.

But clear skies can work in your favour too, he adds. “We need approximately 15 to 45 minutes of sunshine a day for our skin to manufacture Vitamin D, which plays many important roles in our health. The best time to go out is before 10am or after 4.30pm.”

Smoke gets in your eyes

The haze in the region caused by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan has intensified in recent years. Singaporeans pore over PSI readings and make a mad dash for N95 masks during the hazy period, which lasted almost five months from June to October last year.

Despite a regional effort to combat the forest fires, it’s anyone’s guess if the haze will make its annual trip next month. The best thing to do is to make sure you’re prepared for it.

Asst Prof Mikinori Kuwata from the Asian School of the Environment believes it’s best to stay indoors in the event of a haze. “Although there isn’t enough evidence yet to concretely state that it affects our long-term health, there is proof that it causes problems like eye irritation and headaches.”

“I’d also advise you to get N95 masks for you and your family. The mask might not block harmful gases, but it keeps out particles that can harm your body.”