APIA, SAMOA - A tiny harmless mosquito lands on its human prey in a small Pacific nation and begins to feast on their blood. If lucky, they will suffer just an itchy bite but there's also the danger they could be struck down with debilitating dengue fever - and this year's outbreak could be the worst ever.
APIA, SAMOA - A tiny harmless mosquito lands on its human prey in a small Pacific nation and begins to feast on their blood.
If lucky, they will suffer just an itchy bite but there's also the danger they could be struck down with debilitating dengue fever - and this year's outbreak could be the worst ever.
The potentially-fatal disease from the Aedes aegyptias mosquito is in pandemic proportions, experts say.
More than 500 people have been diagnosed in Samoa, at least 1,000 in both New Caledonia and Fiji and close to 900 in Kiribati.
But researchers believe the real number is at least double these figures, because so many people do not seek, or cannot reach, medical help.
In many countries, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, other medical problems like malaria cause the dengue fever to go undetected.
Sylvia Roberts, 21, from Samoa knows only too well how dangerous the mosquitoes can be.
On December 29 last year her younger brother Francis Roberts died of dengue after being bitten while in the nation's capital, Apia.
"Every time he woke up he started talking and then would jump on the bed and tried to jump off the balcony. So he like... he got crazy," Roberts says, with tears in her eyes.
"In the end he was paralysed, he couldn't talk. Then he was gone - just like that," she says snapping her fingers.
Her 17-year-old brother was strong and fit, but that didn't protect him, she says.
"He loved sports, he loved playing rugby and he was a smart kid. He loved accounting and maths. He was really active. He was never into anything stupid," she explains.
Dr Kevin Palmer from the World Health Organisation says dengue fever has spread widely this year.
"At the Pacific Arts Festival a lot of people went there, and there was a risk of people getting it at that time. There was dengue in Pago Pago (where the festival was held) and then they went home and brought it back," he says.
Symptoms of dengue can vary but are often associated with a fever, headaches, joint pain and a rash. For most people it is not fatal.
But as the virus develops complications can lead to haemorrhagic fever, which causes uncontrolled bleeding.
"When you get to hemorrhagic, you get bleeding in your gums. You can get bleeding under the skin. You poke the skin and get hemorrhaging," Palmer explains from his office in Samoa.
"The worst kind is the shock syndrome, where your whole circulatory system just shuts down. That is pretty rare," he says.
"It is in pandemic proportions. To be officially a pandemic in WHO terms it has to have a special sort of review. I call it a pandemic it of the Pacific," Palmer says.
He says instead of spending millions guarding against an outbreak of bird flu, more money should be spent on fighting dengue, which occurs in all Pacific countries except New Zealand.
It is not just locals who contract dengue, but tourists too.
Australian aid worker Tim Bryar recently contracted dengue while working in Samoa.
"Your skin just starts to feel, a bit prickly ... I just started feeling that and I knew something was coming on. I just thought I was run-down," he says.
"The next day I just felt terrible, occasionally I had a bit of pain behind my eyes. Particularly if I moved," Bryar says.
He has since recovered, but with four strains of dengue fever present in the Pacific, he could easily fall victim again.
There is no vaccine for dengue fever, and no specific treatment.
Once contracted doctors advise patients to take fluids and rest.
Many countries affected by dengue rely on tourism, so have an interest in not drawing attention to the problem.
"In 2002 I had one of our economists look at the Cook Islands. She figured that the Cook Islands lost $14 million just because of the outbreak. That is a lot of money," Palmer says.
Meanwhile, there are fears global warming will increase the number of places the mosquitoes that carry the virus can live.
North Queensland regularly gets small outbreaks and in 2004 two people in the Torres Strait died.
The worst outbreak known in Australia was in 1904, when 94 people died in Brisbane.
Roberts says her brother's death has made her more aware of the dangers of dengue.
"It was all from a mosquito bite. That is what they said. They asked us if the room, or where he stays had mozzies. Our house is not open and he always had coils," she says.