Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Dengue Fever Slips Across the Border

• November 16, 2009 • 3:10 PM

In a less remarked-upon aspect of climate change, tropical diseases like dengue fever — once restricted to warmer or moister climes — are infiltrating the United States.

Stories of the potential consequences of climate change have been used to motivate politicians, shame deniers and educate the broader public on how an abstract scientific concept could breed concrete disasters. There are, of course, the rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, migrating species and shrinking ice caps.

Less frequently cited, it turns out, is another concern: dengue fever.

Public health experts now warn that climate change could come with a host of complications that have seldom figured prominently in all the talk of emissions reductions and treaty negotiations. More obvious among the concerns — both in sanitation-poor Third World countries and in the U.S. — are heat-related strokes or deaths. Respiratory illnesses like asthma are another likely consequence of continued air pollution.

But a report recently released by the United States Global Change Research Program also warned of the possible increase in waterborne pathogens and diseases carried by insects and rodents.

Vector-borne diseases like malaria, the plague and dengue fever thrive in tropical parts of Africa where the fleas, ticks and mosquitoes that transmit them live. Malaria, for example, ceases to be a threat in the Sahara where there isn’t enough water for the mosquitoes to survive.

The risk of such diseases is directly related to temperature and precipitation levels — meaning as temperatures rise or rainfall patterns change with the changing climate, existing diseases (or the mosquitoes that carry them) may be on the move, too.

The problem isn’t limited to Africa. In Mexico, since 2001, there has been a 600 percent increase in cases of dengue hemorrhagic fever, according to Mary Hayden, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. As part of a briefing on the health implications of climate change in a Senate office building on Capitol Hill today, Hayden played a brief video illustrating the dramatic spread through the Americas of dengue cases reported to the World Health Organization since the 1960s.

In 2005, the first case was documented in the continental United States along the Texas-Mexico border.

“Dengue is definitely on the move,” Hayden said, “and it’s moving northward.”

It’s also moving toward physicians who aren’t trained to recognize it. As recently as September, a surprising outbreak occurred in Key West, Fla.

In another illustration of the relationship between unusual weather patterns and deadly diseases, Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation and now a professor at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, recalled a hantavirus outbreak in the American Southwest in the early 1990s. Heavy rainfall from the 1991-92 El Niño led to a dramatic increase in deer mice populations in the Four Corners area. Researchers later traced the simultaneous outbreak of a deadly disease – once thought to be the result of bioterrorism – to the mice who carried the hantavirus.

Addressing climate change with public health consequences in mind — the motive of Monday’s congressionally targeted event — does present a kind of paradox. The energy use associated with causing climate change in countries like the U.S. is also partly responsible for improvements in sanitation and health that have made diseases like cholera and the plague antiquated concerns in the West.

“At a certain point, using more energy is associated with improvements in health, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality,” said Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins. “But then there’s a turning point beyond which we continue to consume more and more, but it actually isn’t improving our health.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.