PARIS, Feb 23 (Reuters) A mosquito-borne disease has directly or indirectly killed 77 people on France's Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said today.
''Chikungunya'' fever, for which there is no known cure or vaccine, had affected some 130,000 people on the island off the southeast coast of Africa. Bertrand said that was 20,000 more than a week ago.
Around one in six inhabitants has now been affected on La Reunion, which has a total population of some 775,000.
''The last numbers ... refer to 77 deaths, directly or indirectly attributable to the epidemic for the month of January,'' Bertrand said.
''(This is) a radically new situation, which was not expected because scientific research showed that Chikungunya did not kill,'' he said.
The illness, which has also travelled to the nearby Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles and Mauritius, is marked by high fever and severe rashes. Most people recover although it is extremely painful.
First recognised in East Africa in 1952, it also leaves the immune system weak, proving opportunities for other diseases to set in. The name Chikungunya comes from the Swahili for stooped walk, referring to the posture of those afflicted.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is to travel to La Reunion on Sunday, said the entire island should be ridden of mosquitoes to stop the disease from spreading.
Villepin said it was still safe to visit the island, which is a popular tourist destination for European travellers.
The Reunion Committee on Tourism has reported tour cancellations but has not provided figures for losses incurred.
''You can certainly go there. The proof is that I'm going there,'' Villepin told Canal Plus television. ''You have to take some precautions and use (certain) products,'' he said.
Authorities say people should remove stagnant water, use mosquito repellents and bed nets and spray bedrooms at night.
REUTERS SHR RS1843