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Government leaders declare new epidemic after over 500 reported cases of mosquito-borne illness: 'A warning sign'

"We're having introductions of the virus by people traveling."

"We're having introductions of the virus by people traveling."

Photo Credit: iStock

Puerto Rico is grappling with a mosquito-borne illness at an unusual time of year, and the number of cases has caused its health department to issue a public health emergency. 

What's happening?

On March 25, a spike in dengue infections led Puerto Rico to declare an epidemic of the mosquito-spread disease, as reported by the Washington Post. From the start of the year through March 10, there had already been 549 cases, 341 hospitalizations, and 29 severe cases.

"The fact that it's happening now is really kind of a heads-up, a warning sign for us. … We're having introductions of the virus by people traveling, and we're seeing these outbreaks in Puerto Rico that are out of the season, which are really unusual," said Albert Ko, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health.

According to the Associated Press, there were only 1,293 infections in Puerto Rico in all of 2023. 

Why is this concerning?

As noted by the Post, public health experts believe upticks in mosquito-borne diseases could become more common. Travel, sanitation management, and health system infrastructure are among the factors that can play a role in the spread of diseases, but a warming world is also a point of concern. 

Dengue is typically found in tropical and subtropical climates, as the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the infection needs warmer temperatures to thrive. Colder winters also act as a natural form of pest control

As our planet's temperatures have risen, however, some insects have been able to expand their ranges and increase their populations, including mosquitoes that can spread deadly diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that many people only experience mild symptoms after being infected with dengue, such as nausea, rashes, or body aches, but around one in 20 cases results in severe disease. People who have been infected in the past are more likely to have complications, along with infants and pregnant women.  

What is being done about dengue?

There are several vaccines for the disease for people who've previously been infected, but Ko told the Post that they are not recommended for those who have never had dengue because a breakthrough infection could lead to "an increased risk of severe outcomes." 

However, the Puerto Rico Department of Health told the Post in an email that it is monitoring the situation and working to strengthen its procedures to control the epidemic. 

"We work on a community-based strategy approach. … Those interventions can [include]: educational materials, field visits to identify environmental health risks, coordination with municipalities to eliminate potential mosquitoes breeding sites, and applications of larvicides or adulticides," wrote Melissa Marzán, the health department's chief epidemiologist officer.

And while a warmer planet may be contributing to the spread of diseases, there are daily things we can do to cut down on heat-trapping pollution causing temperatures to rise. Reducing our consumption of single-use plastics, walking places when possible, and using LED lightbulbs are small actions that can help make the world a much healthier place in the long term.  

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