Health & Science

Dengue in Houston: What You Need To Know

Scientists have determined that dengue fever has popped up in the Houston area. Dengue is a dangerous tropical virus carried by mosquitoes. It's the first time it's been identified in a major U.S. city.

Dengue was eradicated from the U.S. decades ago, but recently it’s been creeping back over the border.

It’s been detected along the south Texas border and in Florida, and now it’s in Houston.

“The question is how long has dengue been here? It may have been here quite a while. It was just that no one has been looking.”

Dr. Peter Hotez is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

He says dengue usually causes a flu-like illness, although some people have a mild case with no symptoms.

There is currently no treatment or vaccine.

In severe cases, dengue causes brain inflammation or hemorrhage. A tiny percentage of people who contract this severe form can die from it.

Hotez says even when it’s not life-threatening, it can be a terrible illness.

“It’s associated with high fever, terrible headache, pain behind the eyes. It can also be associated with terrible joint pain and muscle pain, so one of the names for dengue fever is sometimes ‘break bone fever.’”

Dr. Kristy Murray of Baylor led the study that found the virus in Houston.  

She examined blood and samples of spinal fluid that had been stored at a city of Houston lab.

The samples were leftover from West Nile testing done between 2003 and 2005.

“And we thought, well we don’t know if dengue is here or not, why don’t we look back at these samples that were negative for West Nile to see if any of them would test positive for dengue.”

Murray found 47 cases of people who had had dengue, but doctors didn’t realize it at the time. Two of them had died from it.

Murray says it makes sense, because the type of mosquito that transmits dengue is already here in Houston.

“It’s a very aggressive human feeder. These are the mosquitoes here in Houston that we all know about, they are the ones that chase us to our car when we are going out in the morning, they’re incredibly aggressive towards people. And so you can just end up having way more numbers of cases because of that.”

By comparison, West Nile virus is transmitted by a mosquito that usually feeds only at night.

But Murray says Houston doctors need to realize that dengue is here and start testing suspected cases.  That will allow mosquito control to treat affected neighborhoods.

In the meantime, scientists at Baylor and Texas Children’s are testing new drugs and possible vaccines for dengue.