Residents of Key West, Fla., were exposed to an outbreak of dengue fever due to the local mosquito population between 2009 and 2010. However, scientists were surprised to find out that the population of Tucson, Ariz., did not experience cases of the infection – the two cities have the same species of mosquitos.1 So, researchers from the University of Arizona decided to investigate why dengue only troubled those in the Sunshine State.
What is dengue fever?
This disease affects more than one-third of the global population, but most cases occur outside of the U.S. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and doctors have yet to come up with any preventative vaccines. Those who are infected are urged to seek immediate treatment, or a severe disease could develop.2
So, if you live in an area that's exposed to dengue fever or you are visiting locales such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, Samoa, Guam or Puerto Rico, what can you do to avoid infection? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent recommends:3
- not giving mosquitoes a place to lay eggs – generally they like artificial containers that hold water
- using repellents and wearing long sleeves and pants to prevent bites from occurring
- turning on the air conditioning instead of opening windows, so that the insects can't get inside
- sleeping under mosquito nets
Although dengue fever is not that common in the U.S., there are some symptoms you will want to watch out for if there's an outbreak in your area or vacation destination. The CDC recommends heading to the emergency room if you experience one of these signs following exposure:4
- Bleeding from the nose or gums
- Bone, joint and/or muscle pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Extreme abdominal pain
- Red spots/patches on the skin
- Severe headache and/or pain behind the eyes
- Skin that is pale, cold or clammy
- Tarry, black bowel movements
- Persistent vomiting (may contain blood)
Additionally, a doctor can tell you if your white blood cell count is low, which is another symptom of the disease.
Once dengue fever is contracted, patients may find relief from their symptoms from pain relievers that are made with acetaminophen. Additionally, it is best to drink plenty of water and avoid further exposure to mosquitoes to reduce the chances for another bite. Health care professionals will generally use fluid replacement therapy to treat the virus, and most patients will have to be hospitalized during this process.
Based on study findings, there are some small factors that may have played into reasons why Key West experienced an outbreak and Tucson did not. Despite greater awareness of dengue fever among Floridians, no additional preventative measures are were taken to avoid being bitten by an infected mosquito. Those in Arizona were more likely to use bug spray, which may have helped in the long run. But, in the big picture, researchers did not attribute lifestyle choices to the outbreak.
According to LiveScience, Kacey Ernst, study author, referred to mosquito populations as key to the 2009-2010 outbreak in Florida. It is likely, she believes, that the climate of Arizona does not provide an ample environment for the insects to thrive in. Therefore, the mosquitos die before they can pass on the virus.
1 LiveScience, "Dengue fever outbreak in Key West yields new clues" November 14, 2013
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Dengue" November 8, 2013
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Prevention: How to reduce your risk for dengue infection" September 27, 2012
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Symptoms and what to do if you think you have dengue" September 27, 2012