New Link Discovered Between El Niño and Dengue Fever

First Posted: Oct 07, 2015 07:28 AM EDT

There may be a link between disease and climate change. Scientists have found that the epidemics of dengue are lined to high temperatures brought by the El Niño weather system.

Currently, the most intense El Niño in nearly two decades is emerging in the Pacific. This raises the concern that there may be a major increase in cases of dengue fever throughout Southeast Asian countries early next year.

Dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes in the tropics and subtropics. Each year, an estimated 390 million infections occur globally. There is no specific pharmaceutical treatment, though supportive therapy can greatly improve outcomes. In addition, there are a number of vaccine candidates in development, though none of them are current licensed.

"Dengue infects large numbers of people across the tropics each year, but incidence can vary dramatically from year to year in any setting," said Derek Cummings, one of the researchers, in a news release. "During years of large incidence, the number of people requiring hospitalization and care can overwhelm health systems. If we can understand the factors that contribute to these increases, we can prepare for them and act to mitigate the impact of the disease."

In this case, the researchers found that increased temperature results in increased incidence of dengue across the study region. In addition, urban areas act as dengue epidemic "pacemakers," giving rise to traveling waves of large epidemics moving to nearby rural areas.

"This study will contribute toward a better understanding of the cyclical nature of dengue," said Lam Sai Kit, co-author of the new study. "Based on the extensive data analyzed and the conclusions reached, it will help to improve early-warning systems for impending large outbreaks in the region. Now that the new El Niño has started, these findings will help us prepare for a worst-case scenario, and immediate measures can be taken to counter its effect in the next few months."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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