PORT LOUIS, Feb 22 (Reuters) The World Health Organisation today said it was sending experts to the Indian Ocean region to help control a crippling mosquito-borne disease that has infected thousands across Mauritius, Seychelles and Reunion.
''Chikungunya'' fever, for which there is no known cure or vaccine, has affected more than 100,000 people in the islands off the southeast coast of Africa, where officials are concerned it could hit their key tourism sectors.
The fever is marked by high fever and severe rashes, and while most people recover, it is extremely painful.
The WHO says it does not believe the illness, discovered in Tanzania in 1952, is fatal by itself, but it can weaken the immune system.
WHO said its team was due to arrive in Reunion today then travel to other affected islands to assess efforts to control the outbreak and set up a regional surveillance system.
''... because there's a lot of movement of people between the islands in the region, there is a risk of it spreading,'' WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told Reuters by telephone from Geneva.
Around 100,000 cases have been detected on the volcanic French island of Reunion, where health officials blamed the death of a 9-year-old on the infection.
This month, the Reunion Committee on Tourism reported several tour cancellations but did not provide figures.
Seychelles reported more than 1,000 cases of chikungunya earlier this month, but local officials say the number has now declined. Its tourism sector has so far not been affected, with arrivals rising by 15 percent in the past four weeks compared with the same period a year ago.
Mauritius says 341 people have been inflicted, but health experts say the number could rise when new figures will be released on Friday. There have been no confirmed cases of chikungunya in Madagascar or Comoros.
Authorities in Mauritius blamed the outbreak on heavy rain and urged people to use mosquito nets and repellent and remove pools of stagnant water where insects breed.
''People should however not panic as the situation is under control,'' a Mauritius Health Ministry official said.
REUTERS SRS HS2047