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Mervyn Silva: a good man or misguided miscreant? His private war on dengue

by Stewart Sloan
(The views expressed are the author's own)

(August 31, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian)
I recently had the honour of editing a lengthy article about the outbreak and spread of dengue fever in Sri Lanka. It was an eye opener. I knew from my past research and studies that dengue is endemic and a real threat to the citizens of Sri Lanka. However, what I was blissfully unaware of is the government's seemingly total disregard of the very real danger this disease poses to the people and the lack of any real eradication programme.

This government, who only 15 months ago decisively defeated the LTTE has all the finances, resources and personnel available to start an immediate campaign for the control, if not eradication of this killer disease from the shores of its country. Why then are they not doing it? What possible excuse does the Rajapakse regime have for denying the people of the country their constitutional right to health?

Dengue eradication programmes have been instigated with success in many places around the world. Hong Kong started its eradication programme in the late 90s and by 2007 had wiped it out. Of course, a disease such as dengue can never be considered fully eradicated, but constant monitoring ensures that if it ever re-emerges it can be dealt with instantly.

How did Hong Kong eradicate dengue? They like many countries and territories around the world used the vector surveillance system and a special instrument known as an oviposition trap. The ovitrap, as it is known, has been used in conjunction with the vector surveillance system since the 1970s. Yet the ovitrap and the surveillance system are unknown in Sri Lanka. How can this possibly be the case? How can it be that the government of Sri Lanka, the government that successfully defeated the LTTE, with its suicide bombers and military might, cannot launch such a programme to save its people?

The vector system and the trap basically work in the following manner. Using the ovitrap in various locations or vectors, dengue carrying mosquitoes are trapped so that their existence in any one area can be detected. The vector system is then created so that the relevant authorities can maintain records on which areas are at risk so that concentrated efforts at eradication can be made. What is needed here is not an outlandish amount of money and hundreds of thousands of trained personnel. No new technology has to be developed or invented. It is readily available as is the assistance in setting up such a system.

Mervyn's private war on dengue

Much has been written in the Sri Lankan press in recent years about the exploits of Mervyn Silva. From his son's fight at a nightclub and Mervyn's attempt to storm the Canadian Embassy to obtain a visa for him, to his siege of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation. And of course, more recently his alleged assault of a Samurdhi officer who he is supposed to have tied to a tree for failing to attend a dengue control conference. How is it possible that Mervyn Silva, the bully, the ruffian, the ruling regime's court jester is the only member of the Rajapakse government that believes strongly enough in the very real threat to the country that dengue poses?

Now Mervyn has been sacked from his position and thrown out as chief organiser of the Kalaniya constituency of the SLFP for this latest antic. The Sri Lankan public, once again is having a good laugh at him. After all, you can't go tying civil servants, no matter how junior to trees. But I suggest that if, in fact, Mervyn did tie this man to a tree he made another serious error; he tied the wrong person to the tree.

People are suffering and dying in a potential land of plenty. The war with the LTTE is over. The money used to build up the military might of Sri Lanka at a time when such might was needed should now be spent to eradicate dengue.

Are the Buddhist monks who marched for Mervyn's reinstatement the only people that can see what he was trying to do? No doubt it will come as a shock to many people to learn that they have to apologise to him.

Who should Mervyn tie to a tree next?

Sloan is the author of three novels and a collection of anecdotes about the Royal Hong Kong Police Force whom he served as a civilian from 1987 to 1997. He works as an editorial assistant for a regional human rights NGO in Hong Kong.

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