Florida public health and mosquito-control experts are calling on homeowners to clean up to prevent the spread of dengue, and of another painful, mosquito-borne virus that is rapidly spreading across the hemisphere.
“Florida is under an imminent threat from dengue and chikungunya,” said Walter Tabachnick, director of the University of Florida-affiliated Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, the state’s leading research lab on the biology of mosquitoes and mosquito-transmitted diseases. “The public needs to know that, and needs to take care of their environment by cleaning up.”
Tabachnick led a workshop Tuesday and Wednesday at the Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce for about 120 health and mosquito-control experts who exchanged ideas on how to prepare the state for outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, which has been jumping from island to island since it was first detected in the region in December in the French territory of St. Martin.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported 4,406 confirmed cases of chikungunya in the region, although Haiti’s health ministry last week said it had confirmed 15,578 cases there. PAHO has reported more than 103,000 suspected cases, including 38,639 in the Dominican Republic.
Chikungunya and dengue are carried by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito that is common in the region and in Florida.
Controlling mosquitoes is key to preventing the spread of the diseases, experts say.
“One of their prime habitats is the things you find around the house or out in your yard,” Tabachnick said of the blood-sucking nuisance insects. “That is why the public needs to change its behavior.”
Chikungunya has spread to 17 countries plus the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, according to PAHO. There are also reports that Barbados and Chile were investigating their first suspected cases of the virus, which is rarely fatal but has been linked to 14 deaths in people who were already sick.
So far, Florida has not reported any locally transmitted cases of the virus, but there are 18 cases of imported chikungunya from travelers who visited countries with an outbreak, according to the Florida Department of Health’s website.
Health experts say the disease could follow the same pattern as dengue fever, which remains difficult to control.
While Florida has reported 16 cases of dengue fever this year, the hemisphere experienced its worst dengue outbreak in history last year. There were 2.3 million dengue cases, PAHO said, including 1,289 deaths.
“Controlling the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the disease, is a great regional and global challenge,” said Marcos Espinal, director of PAHO’s department of communicable diseases and health analysis. “All government sectors, communities and families have to work together to fight the vector and control this disease, which knows no borders, discriminates against no one, and is everyone’s problem, not just the health sector’s.”
Tabachnick said steps need to be taken by local officials and policymakers to combat the virus should it arrive. Discussions, for instance, focused on improved surveillance to locate mosquitoes then to reduce their populations.
Tabachnick also called on the public to get rid of standing water and large vases, buckets or anything in yards that holds water. This also means cleaning up bird baths and abandoned swimming pools.
“We are not saying, ‘There is a danger of you coming to Florida now.’ And we are not saying, ‘Even if there is a chikungunya outbreak, there will be one,’ ” he said. “What we want to say is that even if there is a chikungunya outbreak, we can say, ‘There still is no danger coming to Florida because we have it under control.’ ”
So far, governments are struggling to keep things under control where there have been outbreaks.
In Haiti, health officials have stepped up surveillance as the virus quickly spreads across the island, which is shared by the Dominican Republic. Health Minister Florence Guillaume dismissed rumors that another virus — Zika, which is also carried by the same mosquito — had arrived on the island.
“We have a fairly substantial Haiti epidemiological surveillance system overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization,” she said. “There is no reason to date suggests that this fever Zika is in Haiti. However, we continue our surveillance.”
International public health epidemiologists with the Caribbean Public Health Agency and the Centers for Disease Control also said they were monitoring, and so far have found no signs of Zika in the Americas. They, too, have called on people to protect themselves with insect repellant and to remove standing water.