Dengue virus is surging in Latin America at an inopportune time for Miami, with infections in those countries spreading rapidly just as many foreign-born South Florida residents are preparing to travel to their home countries for the holidays, public health experts are warning.
That increases the likelihood that travelers will bring the disease back to South Florida when they return.
The number of reported dengue cases in Miami-Dade County ticked up to 11 earlier this week. As of Nov. 11, the caseload in the greater Americas region — 2,733,635 — is the largest in history, exceeding the epidemic year of 2015 by 13%, according to the most recent report by the Pan American Health Organization, a public health agency.
Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health at Florida International University, said the Dengue virus is “out of proportion,” concentrated mostly in Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Colombia and Nicaragua. Espinal added that there is a lack of reliable information currently coming out of Venezuela.
“At this point, the general consensus is we are facing a very serious epidemic of dengue in the region at the moment,” Espinal said. “We are very close to Christmas time, and you know how people in Latin America travel a lot back to their countries of origin, where we have this epidemic.”
That means that, come January, more dengue cases could be expected in South Florida, Espinal said. As of Nov. 16, there have been 342 cases statewide, with most of them related to Cuba, according to the Florida Department of Health.
When people are infected by dengue for the first time, most of them are asymptomatic, Espinal said. Given that, the infection rate could be much higher than the disease, because public health experts don’t truly know how many cases we have, he added.
Dengue can be contracted through the bite of an Aedes aegypti mosquito, the same mosquito that spreads chikungunya and Zika virus.
Espinal tied the surging rate of dengue virus infection to global climate change. Research has shown that global warming has allowed mosquitoes, as well as other disease-bearing inspects, to proliferate by adapting to different seasons and migrating to warmer areas.
“Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for dengue and prevention revolves mostly around what people do to clean the potential breeding places around their houses and use mosquito repellent when they travel to these countries,” Espinal said.
Miami-Dade has the most cases of locally transmitted dengue in the state.
Broward, which reported one case of the virus in September, is the only other county in the state to have reported a locally transmitted case.
In August, the Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control Division said it was “at the ready” for dengue virus as locally transmitted cases of the disease surfaced in South Florida.
An agency spokesperson on Friday said it has been following that same protocol: checking more than 180 mosquito traps throughout the county, which it analyzes and tests for pathogens to help inform its treatment plans.