Dengue virus poses a major public health threat across the globe, and it could be coming to a southern California neighborhood near you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, this mosquito-borne virus is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics and is endemic in half of the world’s countries. It is estimated that more than 100 million cases of dengue occur worldwide each year. Recently, reports have come out of India of a dengue fever epidemic, which the World Health Organization says threatens hundreds of millions of lives around the world if not properly addressed by government officials. Epidemics have also been declared in Puerto Rico, the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, and most countries in Latin America this year.
Here in the U.S., past dengue outbreaks have occurred in a handful of states, including Florida, Hawaii, and Texas. Just last month, a locally acquired case of dengue was confirmed in Miami, Florida. While dengue cases in California are rare, that could change with the recent introduction of an invasive, day-biting mosquito known as the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus). This black and white striped mosquito was discovered in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County in September 2011 and continues to plague neighborhoods in El Monte and South El Monte, despite aggressive control efforts by local vector control agencies.
The Asian tiger mosquito has the ability to vector, or carry and transmit, the dengue virus from human to human. If a traveler infected with the virus enters into an area where these mosquitoes are established, it is possible for these mosquitoes to bite the carrier, become infected, and then spread the virus to others. The outbreaks in India, Latin America, and even Southeast Asia are, therefore, cause for great concern among public health experts.
Dengue virus can cause three types of illness: dengue fever, dengue hemorrhagic fever, and dengue shock syndrome. Symptoms for all three may start with high fever, severe headache, or muscle and bone pain. Those suffering from dengue hemorrhagic fever may experience bleeding from the nose or mouth, vomiting, severe pain in the abdomen and fluid accumulation around the lungs. The pain involved with this illness can be so severe, it has been called “breakbone fever.” Without proper treatment, the hemorrhagic fever can lead to shock and death.
Travel continues to be a big contributor to the spread of this virus. W.H.O. officials say that a couple of decades ago, only one out of 50 tourists returning from the tropics with a fever was actually infected with dengue. Today, that number is one in six. While it may be impossible to stop all sick travelers from entering into the U.S., California residents can prevent a local dengue outbreak by helping to eliminate the potential vectors of the disease. Homeowners can stop the Asian tiger mosquitoes by getting rid of breeding sources such as small containers, plant dishes, trash, recyclable cans, and anything else that might collect rain and sprinkler water. Since these non-native mosquitoes bite during the day, residents should report any daytime mosquito activity to their local vector control agency. To learn more or to find out which agency services your area, visit www.RIDsoCal.org.