June 16, 2006

Malaria Outbreak in the Bahamas Prompts Screening

By John Marquis

NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) - Health officials in the Bahamas are screening illegal immigrants for malaria after an outbreak of the potentially fatal disease was confirmed on a sandy chain of islands southeast of Nassau.

A dozen people on the Exuma islands, where wealthy Europeans, Canadians and Americans have built Bahamian vacation retreats, were discovered to have been stricken by malaria earlier this week.

It was the first known occurrence of the disease in the Bahamas, which depends heavily on income from tourism, in recent memory.

Dr Merceline Dahl-Regis, the government's chief medical officer, has identified the strain of malaria on the Exumas as plasmodium falciparum. Also known as "malignant" or "cerebral" malaria, it causes the most severe and potentially fatal symptoms in humans.

Malaria is caused by a parasite known as Plasmodium, which is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.

The Ministry of Health said that, because malaria is endemic to Haiti, teams have been screening areas in the Bahamas where Haitians live.

Officials have also been screening immigrants held at Nassau's Carmichael Road detention center for the disease, since it holds many Haitian deportees awaiting repatriation, the ministry said.

It said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to advise Americans to take anti-malaria drugs as a preventative measure if traveling to the Exuma islands. The CDC is not, however, issuing a travel alert for the entire Bahamas chain, the ministry said.

Three of the malaria patients in Exuma were Haitians and one was Uruguayan, health officials said. The rest were all believed to be Bahamians.

Of the dozen people stricken, five were taken to Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau and have already been discharged after responding well to chloroquine treatment.