July 30, 2010, 2:13 p.m.
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, July 27 (Reuters) - An epidemic of dengue fever in the Caribbean and Latin America has increased the risk of an outbreak of the sometimes deadly mosquito-borne virus in South Florida, a bioclimatologist and dengue expert said on Tuesday.
Florida's proximity to affected countries, the flow of people from there and similar tropical climate factors raised the probability of the disease afflicting the southern state after an absence of decades, Dr. Douglas Fuller told Reuters.
"I think the risk is substantial ... In terms of the basic ingredients, you've got everything that you would need for an epidemic," he said in a phone interview.
"I think we're on the doorstep," added Fuller, who is chair of the Geography and Regional Studies department of the University of Miami's College of Arts and Sciences.
Dengue, also known as "breakbone fever," causes flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches and muscle and joint pains. It can also take on a hemorrhagic form, causing sudden death through internal bleeding and bleeding from body orifices.
Companies are working on a vaccine, but there is no effective drug to treat it.
Some 17,000 cases of dengue have been reported this year across the Caribbean through early June, according to the Pan American Health Organization, with deaths being reported in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.
In Central America, local health authorities have reported more than 50,000 dengue cases so far this year, and more than 40 deaths, prompting authorities in Honduras and other countries to launch mosquito fumigation campaigns.
"You've got this epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean that just keeps getting worse, and that's where we have the biggest exchange (of people) coming to South Florida ... not just tourists, but business people, people visiting their families, immigrants," Fuller said.
"THINGS CAN SNOWBALL"
Earlier this month, government researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 5 percent of the population of Key West, Florida -- more than 1,000 people -- had been infected at some point with the dengue virus, based on a random blood test survey.
And they expressed concern about the virus gaining a foothold in Key West, from where it could travel to cities like Miami. That would represent the reemergence of dengue fever in Florida and elsewhere in the United States after a 75-year absence.
It only takes one bite from an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito -- the main carrier, which has striped white and black legs -- to pass the virus to a human, Fuller said.
"If it's lucky and bites a person, let's say, at Coconut Grove, having a drink in the evening, and that person goes home and gets sick, and then another mosquito bites that person, then that mosquito will pick up the virus," he added.
"So things can snowball very quickly ... once you've got that chain proliferating," Fuller said.
He said tourism authorities in Florida, the "Sunshine State" whose economic livelihood depends on visitors, might be reluctant to issue public warnings over the dangers of dengue.
But he said he believed public health authorities should seriously address the potential risk and "put more effort into early warning capacity, preventive kinds of measures, rather than reactive measures based on passive surveillance."
"We need a forecasting system, an early warning system ... it costs money to do this kind of thing," Fuller said.
The dengue-carrying mosquito lives in and around human habitats. "It's not living in the marshes, or breeding in the Everglades and then coming in swarms, it's right in your own backyard and garden," he said.
However, he said the home window screens widely used in South Florida as well as easy access to mosquito repellents could help mitigate the spread. "(Dengue) could bring a lot of misery, (but) probably not a lot of deaths ... It's not going to be like the plague," Fuller said. (Editing by Paul Simao)