By Catherine Larkin
Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Dengue fever, a potentially deadly virus usually found in the tropics, could begin spreading widely in the U.S. as mosquitoes that transmit the disease move into more states, according to two leading epidemiologists.
The disease has already struck Hawaii, Texas and Puerto Rico after decades of absence in the U.S., Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and colleague David Morens write in the Jan. 9 Journal of the American Medical Association. They expect the threat to persist with increased air travel and urban development.
More than 760,000 cases of dengue and almost 20,000 cases of its deadly form, dengue hemorrhagic fever, were reported in the Americas in the first 11 months of last year, according to the Pan American Health Organization. With no specific treatments or proven vaccines to prevent the infection, an outbreak could overwhelm communities, Fauci and Morens said.
``This is an important problem, and our options for control and prevention at the moment are not very good,'' said Morens, Fauci's senior scientific adviser, in a phone interview today. ``It's easy to forget when a disease has been away for a long period of time.''
Dengue can be caused by four kinds of flavivirus, a family of viruses that also includes yellow fever and West Nile. The Aedes mosquitoes that transmit dengue have been around for hundreds of years and have re-emerged in greater numbers since efforts to prevent yellow fever waned in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Increases in rainfall, temperature and humidity caused by global warming also favor the spread of mosquitoes. These types of weather changes may more than double the number of people exposed to dengue worldwide by 2080, according to the United Nations' 2007-2008 Human Development Report.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50 million cases of dengue infection occur each year. The flu-like illness leads to about 500,000 hospitalizations, mostly in children, and at least 2.5 percent of patients die.
Symptoms include high fever, headaches, joint and muscle pain, vomiting and a rash. Usually people with dengue recover within two weeks, according to the National Institutes of Health. The infection can be life-threatening when it turns into dengue hemorrhagic fever, which causes bleeding from the nose, gums or under the skin, or dengue shock syndrome, which causes massive bleeding and shock, according to the NIH.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, based in Bethesda, Maryland, allocated $33.2 million in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30 for research on dengue and the development of vaccines, medicines and tools to diagnose the disease, according to a statement released today.
To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Larkin in Washington at.
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