MAF medevacs help fight Timor-Leste's severe dengue fever epidemic

Published: 28 Apr 2022

MAF medevacs a critical 2-year-old severe dengue fever patient from Atauro Island to hospital in Dili

Dengue fever cases in the first quarter of 2022 are five times higher than last year, as per Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Health. Children are mostly affected with 77% of all cases reportedly under the age of 14. Without MAF, it would take hours to get to hospital by road or boat instead of only minutes by air. With MAF, saving time saves lives….

Dengue fever is spread by infected mosquitoes and is common during Timor-Leste’s hottest months between December and April.

This year however, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Timor-Leste is experiencing ‘unusually high levels compared to previous years’. Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Health is describing the number of dengue fever cases as a ‘serious public health issue’. The WHO says:

‘The significant daily increase in the number of dengue cases and the rate of hospitalisation in the current outbreak are unusual. The number of reported cases from 1 December 2021 is substantially higher compared to the same period in previous years since 2016.’

On 28 April 2022, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Health reported a total of 4,523 dengue fever cases since 1 December 2021, including 51 deaths.

During the same period in 2021, there were only 901 cases and 11 deaths – that’s five times less than 2022.

MAF is the only air ambulance service in Timor-Leste facilitated by pilots like Jan Klassen

What is dengue fever?

Dengue fever presents itself as flu-like symptoms with a high temperature. The infection is usually mild and clears up after a week, but sometimes it can be very severe and even life threatening. Preventing mosquito bites is an effective way of avoiding the disease.

There is no vaccine for dengue fever, which can usually be treated with paracetamol, plenty of fluids and rest. Early recognition of the disease and appropriate care are key and can reduce severe cases and death.

But in a country with a fragile health system, poor infrastructure and where available resources are already battling coronavirus, it’s of little surprise that the number of severe cases have increased in Timor-Leste.

MAF saves a seven-year-old

In February alone this year, 1,284 cases of dengue fever were reported compared to only 242 cases in February 2021 (source: Timor-Leste Ministry of Health).

Since 2007, MAF has been the only air ambulance service in the country to fly patients to Timor-Leste’s main hospital ‘National Hospital of Guido Valadares’ in the capital Dili, saving patients thousands of hours of road travel.

Without MAF medevacs, there would be more deaths caused by untreated severe dengue fever this time of year.

One of those cases was this seven-year-old on 14 February:

7-year-old severe dengue fever patient is medevacked to hospital by MAF accompanied by Nurse Jumenia Ximenes Saldanha

The child's medevac from Viqueque in the south to the hospital in Dili only took 35 minutes. By road it takes six hours. Time is critical says Nurse Jumenia Ximenes Saldanha:

‘Due to distance and poor roads, it’s very difficult for us to transfer patients from rural areas - it would take hours to reach hospital for specialist treatment.

‘If MAF wasn’t operating here and didn’t collaborate with Timor Leste’s Ministry of Health for medevacs, it would be difficult for Timorese.’ 

Nurse Jumenia Ximenes Saldanha

Thanks to MAF pilots Marcus Grey and Jan Klassen, the child received the right hospital treatment in good time – they are now on their way to recovery. Following a six-hour overland journey on poor roads, who knows if the child would have survived?  

A medevac from Atauro Island only take 15 minutes

Three days’ later, the two pilots medevac another two-year old boy suffering from severe dengue fever to the same hospital. His condition is critical.

The flight from Atauro Island off Timor-Leste’s north coast to Dili only takes MAF 15 minutes. By boat it takes two hours – far too much time says Broslin dos Santos, the boy’s father:

‘Our flight was very fast and easy - only 15 minutes to Dili. Normally we travel by boat, which takes two hours. If the weather is bad, we can’t travel at all.

‘My son had a severe fever when we brought him to Atauro Island Clinic. The nurses decided to transfer him to the national hospital on the mainland for treatment. After a few minutes, MAF picked us up and flew us to Dili. He was in hospital for almost a week. When he recovered and was discharged, we returned by boat.

‘We are very thankful for MAF’s medevac, which saved our child’s life. We hope that God blesses MAF’s mission in Timor-Leste, which transforms the lives of isolated people. I can’t imagine MAF not operating here - it would be difficult in emergency situations.’

On landing, the 2-year-old boy is transferred to hospital accompanied by his mother and father Broslin dos Santos (R)

From January to March this year, seven of MAF’s medevacs in Timor-Leste have been related to severe dengue fever. Five were from Atauro Island, one from Baucau in the north-east and another from Viqueque in the south. All patients were under the age of ten.

Since 2007, MAF has medevacked nearly 3,000 patients to Dili’s National Hospital of Guido Valadares from all over the country.

In Timor-Leste, MAF is summoned for a medevac nearly every day: