By Daniela Desantis

ASUNCION (Reuters) – Paraguay is bracing for a potential major epidemic of Dengue fever after recording close to 7,000 suspected cases in the first two weeks of 2020, similar to levels in the severe 2013 outbreak that led to 250 deaths.

Health authorities in the landlocked South American nation are also investigating 10 deaths potentially linked to Dengue, after confirming that a 68-year-old man had died from the disease, which causes high fever and joint pain.

Dengue is an endemic disease in Paraguay and is transmitted by the bite of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito.

The Ministry of Public Health said it would cancel vacation leave for doctors from the start of February, expected to be when the epidemic peaks, adding that hospitals were working “flat out” with consultations.

“This is just part of our planning ahead for the time when the peak of the epidemic is expected,” Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni said at a press conference.

The ministry says that around three-quarters of the cases have been registered in and around capital city Asuncion.

Dengue cases in Paraguay peak in the southern hemisphere summer months, when mosquitoes that transmit the disease proliferate. Cases start to reduce at the end of March.

In 2019, there were about 11,000 recorded cases and nine deaths, according to official figures. Paraguay has the second highest incidence of the disease in South America after Brazil, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

(Reporting by Daniela Desantis; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Richard Chang)