County officials provide dengue screenings for homeless

November 22nd, 2015 – Hawaii Tribune Herald 

The smell of insect repellent pervaded the pavilion at Wailoa River State Park on Friday in Hilo.

Each year, Hope Services Hawaii hosts a luncheon and resource fair for the homeless and underserved population of East Hawaii, providing health screens, vision tests, flu shots and more. But this year’s event also included services aimed at preventing the spread of dengue fever.

As Hawaii County continues its “Fight the Bite” campaign to get a handle on Hawaii Island’s dengue outbreak, reaching out to homeless residents is an especially important step, said county Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira.

“As we are performing our outreach, we are trying to make sure we reach every segment of the population,” he said. “We know there are some segments that may not be aware or be privvy to the information, including the homeless and migrant workers and immigrant populations. They may not have access to the info, and we’re trying to address that.”

Attendees at Friday’s health fair received goody bags including personal hygiene items like soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper and more. But they also received insect repellent cannisters and wipes, thanks to a donation from Long’s Drugs, Oliveira said.

Meanwhile, Hawaii County Fire Department personnel were on hand to provide dengue screenings, which involved talking one-on-one with people and asking about any symptoms they might be experiencing, said Batallion Chief Lance Uchida.

“We’ve been tasked by the Department of Health and the Civil Defense office with doing these screenings for the vulnerable population,” he said. “Many of them don’t have the means to protect themselves.”

Firefighters handed out fliers to fair attendees containing information about dengue that was translated into Chuukese, Marshallese, Ilocano, Tagalog and Spanish.

Pahoa resident Rachel Nanavarretes, 62, said she has been concerned about the outbreak and came to the fair Friday to find out more about mosquito bites. She regularly uses insect repellent, but still manages to get bitten, because she spends a lot of time outdoors.

“I’ve been bitten in Pahoa lots of times. I have a big bite on the back of my leg now, but they wouldn’t look at it,” she said.

Health officials say there’s no way to tell whether someone has dengue from looking at a mosquito bite, but instead provided information about potential symptoms that can point to a dengue infection, including a high fever, severe headaches, body and joint pains, vomiting, eye pain or a rash.

Nanavarretes said she was glad to have support from the community. After moving to the Big Island from Maui, she said she was homeless before Hope Services staff helped her find a place to live in June.

“They’re good people,” she said. “They’re compassionate to the homeless and the mentally ill. That’s why I started volunteering my time with them, to give back.”

Past fairs have seen attendance of around 800 people, said Hope Services Director Denise Oguma. But, because Friday’s event was held during a weekday, it appeared attendance was down by a few hundred.

“We’re hoping more people show up,” she said.

The organization, which has three outreach staffers in East Hawaii and three on the leeward side, has been working to reach out to the homeless since the start of the outbreak, Oguma said.

“They’re out every day talking to people,” she said. “… We’ve seen a huge increase in the (homeless) population in the last few years.”

In addition to a lack of access to health care services and information services, like television, Internet and radio, the homeless are also at risk to dengue because of the sheer fact they spend almost all their time outdoors, she said.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in more rural areas in Kona, Puna and Ka‘u,” she said. “Many are living in out-of-the-way places. Some are in tents. It’s more cost effective for them. Many may lack the education and the work experience to find a job in town and they’re not getting hired.”

She added that many of the isle’s homeless are longtime residents who finally outgrew family homes, where several generations may be staying at once.

“There’s simply no room for them,” Oguma said. “You know, now in Hawaii, you often have to have at least two employed people just to pay the bills in a household. … It’s tough.”

Meanwhile Friday, the dengue outbreak marched on, with the Department of Health adding nine new confirmed cases to its running tally, which now stands at 88 people.

For more information about the outbreak, visit http://health.hawaii.gov/docd/dengue-outbreak-2015/

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.