Ask people in the western world if they know what dengue fever is, and you’re likely to get a significant amount of blank stares. While some might have a limited amount of knowledge of the disease, they might also assume that dengue is relegated to tropical areas in developing nations.
While that assumption is not entirely incorrect, it’s not entirely accurate either. Dengue fever does indeed affect people in developing nations, but as over 33 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where dengue fever is present, this means that dengue is far from a problem for developing nations.
Scientists and medical professionals are working tirelessly to combat this disease, but cases of infection are increasing rapidly year after year. As infection rates reach critical levels, it is imperative that specialists like those who have a master’s degree in public health and study issues like tropical medicine come together to address the need for a vaccines and treatments that are effective against dengue.
What is Dengue Fever?
Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne disease similar to malaria or West Nile disease, but the similarities end there. The dengue virus is transmitted by several types of mosquito in the Aedes family, and there are five known variations of the virus itself.
Dengue fever is characterized by rapid onset of symptoms, which include fever, joint pain, nausea, headache and rash. The joint and muscle pain associated with the disease can be extremely intense, hence dengue’s nickname, “breakbone fever.” The majority of these patients experience a complete recovery and require nothing more than the management of symptoms through pain relief, rehydration, and, in rare cases, blood transfusion.
In some patients, particularly those under the age of ten, a more severe form of the virus, known as dengue hemorrhagic fever, can be contracted. This form of the virus is similar to dengue fever, but signs of hemorrhage become present as well. In even rarer cases, patients develop dengue shock syndrome, characterized by uncontrolled bleeding. This form of the disease is particularly life threatening, especially in areas underserved by the medical community.
Where is Dengue Fever?
Dengue fever is endemic to 110 countries in the world, which means that the disease is consistently present in the local mosquito population. While dengue is not endemic to the United States, the disease has been found in areas in Hawaii, southern Texas, Arizona and Florida. However, dengue is endemic to Puerto Rico.
Some dengue endemic areas around the world are also very popular tourist destinations. These include Fiji, Thailand, northeastern Australia, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Malaysia and many more. If you’ve traveled or lived in areas between 30 degrees north and south latitude, it’s likely that you’ve been in a dengue-endemic area.
What’s Being Done to Stop Dengue Fever?
One of the reasons that dengue fever is such a major public health issue is that there is not a vaccine for the disease. Additionally, patients who are infected are the main viral source for the mosquito, thus creating an infection cycle. Scientists and public health officials around the world are working to combat dengue fever, but the progress is slow. While mosquito control seems to be the most effective method of preventing the disease, it is also the most time consuming. Some biologists are working on ways to interrupt the mosquito’s life cycle, and some are introducing genetic modifications that render the mosquitos unable to fly, or with partial immunity to the virus itself.
One of the reasons the disease is considered to be an extreme public health risk is because there are no medications that specifically target the virus. Health care professionals can only treat the symptoms at this time. The World Health Organization and other public health advocates are vocal about the need for increased research into an effective treatment.
However, the ultimate solution to the dengue problem is a vaccine that would prevent infection. While there have been some promising clinical trials in recent years, an effective vaccine has yet to reach the market.
For now, the best way to prevent dengue fever is to avoid the mosquitoes. If you live in or are visiting a dengue endemic area, wear mosquito repellent day and night. Use mosquito netting on all sleeping areas, and maintain adequate window screens. Additionally, the elimination of standing water near dwellings destroys the mosquito’s breeding grounds.
Hopefully, with increased education and the involvement of public health officials from around the world, dengue fever might soon become a thing of the past. Until then it’s imperative that people become more aware of this potentially deadly disease and learn the best ways to prevent it.