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Central America suffering the worst outbreak of dengue fever in decades

Friday, August 30th 2019 - 07:40 UTC
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Besides Central America other Latin American nations such as Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia and Belize are also affected, says the Pan American Health Organization. Besides Central America other Latin American nations such as Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia and Belize are also affected, says the Pan American Health Organization.

Central America is grappling with its worst outbreak of dengue fever in decades - and scientists say the disease is likely to spread and become more frequent in the future due to climate change.

Worst hit is Honduras where 109 deaths from the mosquito-borne disease have been recorded, many among children, making this year's dengue fever outbreak the deadliest on record in the Central American nation, the United Nations noted.

Also hard hit in Central America are Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, with other Latin American nations such as Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia and Belize also affected, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, dengue cases are rising. At least 2 million people have caught the disease so far this year and more than 720 have died, according to the Pan American Health Organization, the regional arm of the World Health Organization.

“We have seen dengue cases in the Americas double each decade since the 1980s and this year is particularly severe,” said Rachel Lowe, a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine professor who researches the impact of environmental change on infectious diseases.

The dengue virus is spread by biting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes - the same species that carries other diseases such as chikungunya, Zika and yellow fever.

While no single dengue outbreak can be linked directly to climate change, scientists say warming temperatures, changing weather conditions and more extreme weather from torrential rains to drought can fuel outbreaks.

“Climate change is altering the climate patterns we expect. These shifting rainfall patterns can change the timing and intensity of outbreaks,” Ms Lowe said. “One thing we have seen from my research is certainly that warmer temperatures and rainfall can increase the risk of dengue outbreaks”.

As climate change strengthens, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases are expected to expand into new communities living in highland regions.

“As the temperature warms, mosquitoes can survive at higher altitudes and then people who haven't previously been exposed to different infections, and don't have immunity to the diseases, are more susceptible,” Ms Lowe said.

People living in densely populated slum areas with no running water or proper sewage and rubbish collection systems are particularly at risk of catching dengue, she said.

During heavy rainfall, slums often flood because drains are non-existent or blocked, leaving puddles of stagnant water outside people's homes where mosquitoes can breed.

During periods of rain and drought, slum dwellers often store water in buckets and collect rainwater in roof-top tanks. Water also collects in discarded tires and among rubbish. All are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Ms Lowe said.

A 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that combating global warming could have a significant impact on lowering the incidence and spread of dengue fever in Latin America.

“If we could keep global temperatures at the 2 deg C target... that should prevent about 3 million dengue cases in Latin America and the Caribbean every year,” Ms Lowe said.

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