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What is dengue fever? This mosquito-borne disease could become endemic as Europe and US heats up

Mosquitoes are seen on stagnant water on the roadside during countrywide dengue infection, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 2023.
Mosquitoes are seen on stagnant water on the roadside during countrywide dengue infection, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 2023. Copyright REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo
Copyright REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo
By Euronews Green with Reuters
Published on Updated
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Climate change could make dengue fever a major threat in southern Europe this decade, WHO scientist warns.

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Dengue fever will become a major threat in southern Europe this decade, the WHO's chief scientist has warned.

Warmer temperatures are creating the conditions for the mosquitoes carrying the infection to spread. It is also expected to surge in the southern United States and new parts of Africa.

The illness has long been a scourge in much of Asia and Latin America, causing an estimated 20,000 deaths each year. 

Rates of the disease have already risen eight-fold globally since 2000, driven largely by climate change as well as the increased movement of people and urbanisation.

Dengue fever cases are surging to record levels

Many dengue fever cases go unrecorded, but in 2022 4.2 million cases were reported worldwide. Public health officials have warned that near-record levels of transmission are expected this year. 

Bangladesh is currently experiencing its worst-ever outbreak, with more than 1,000 deaths.

“We need to talk much more proactively about dengue,” says Jeremy Farrar, an infectious diseases specialist who joined the World Health Organization in May this year.

“We need to really prepare countries for how they will deal with the additional pressure that will come… in the future in many, many big cities.”

Farrar previously spent 18 years working in Vietnam on tropical diseases including dengue. He later headed up the Wellcome Trust global health charity and advised the UK government on its COVID-19 response before joining the WHO in May this year.

Dengue is likely to 'take off' in Europe with global warming

Global warming is making new areas hospitable to the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever. 

Farrar says the infection is likely to “take off” and become endemic in parts of Europe, the United States and Africa - all regions where there has already been some limited local transmission.

That will put acute pressure on hospital systems in many countries, he warns.

“The clinical care is really intensive, it requires a high ratio of nurses to patients,” he says. “I really worry when this becomes a big issue in sub-Saharan Africa.”

What are the symptoms of dengue fever?

Most people who get dengue do not have symptoms, meaning case rates are thought to be far higher than the reported numbers. 

Those who do can experience fever, muscle spasms and joint pain so severe it is known as “break-bone fever.” In severe cases - less than 1 per cent - it can be fatal.

About one in 20 people who get sick with dengue will develop severe dengue, according to the CDC. Children, pregnant people and those who have had dengue in the past are more at risk.

There is no specific treatment for dengue, although there is a vaccine available. Earlier this week, the WHO recommended Takeda Pharmaceuticals' Qdenga vaccine for children aged 6 to 16 in areas where the infection is a significant public health problem.

Qdenga is also approved by the EU regulator, but Takeda withdrew its application in the United States earlier this year, citing data collection issues. Takeda said it was still in talks with the US Food and Drug Administration about the vaccine.

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How can Europe prepare for a dengue outbreak?

Preparing new regions of the world to deal with dengue means ensuring that any public health funds get spent in the right areas, Farrar says, including on the best way to control the mosquito.

Dengue is spread by infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which behave differently to the malaria-carrying kind. For example, they bite people indoors, and they bite all day rather than overnight. They also breed in very shallow water.

Farrar says proper prevention would include triaging plans for hospitals as well as scientific innovation alongside other key factors, such as urban planning, to avoid areas of standing water near or in houses.

“We need to combine different sectors that are not used to working together,” he says.

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