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

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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