When I hear the words dengue fever I think the Tropics. I picture lush palm trees swaying in a gentle wind and luxurious cerulean waters tentatively kissing soft powdery sands only to rush away in shyness. There is maybe a couple sitting in the shade of one of the far palms, hands entwined, sighing in contentment - they must be honeymooners.
The man slaps his right shoulder and drops his hand again. Then he slaps his forehead, looks at his hand, and wipes it on his shorts. She suddenly jumps up and starts slapping herself all over and screaming in short bursts. It sounds like she's saying something about mosquitoes, about how many there are and how she really wishes they wouldn't have forgotten to bring their bug spray because she read in her travel book that dengue fever is prevalent here.
Unfortunately, this scenario isn't just playing out in the Tropics anymore. This is happening right here in the Continental United States, in the Southernmost City, Key West. Besides a few occurrences along the Mexico-Texas border, this is the first time the US has seen locally acquired dengue fever since 1945, and the first time it has been seen in Florida since 1934. According to the CDC, dengue fever has officially been confirmed in 28 individuals between July 2009 and April 2010.
Health officials are concerned that if this virus spreads in Key West (1000 residents are thought to have been exposed) it could spread to other cities in South Florida and become endemic once again. Officials from federal to local are joining together to combat this threat. There will be heightening physician surveillance to monitor patients exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Current mosquito control methods will be adjusted and increased and there will be door-to-door meets with residents to ensure there are no suitable breeding locations for mosquitoes outside their homes.
What does this mean for you?
1. Don't panic! The Gulf States need our support and tourism right now more than ever. If you have a trip planned, don't cancel them because of this. If you were considering a trip until you heard about the dengue fever, book that trip now! There are dangers every time you walk out your front door and you shouldn't live in fear.
2. Wear DEET. Dengue fever is contracted through a mosquito bite. Prevent the mosquito from biting you and you have done well to prevent dengue. There are no vaccines for this virus and no specific treatments that make it go away. My children's pediatrician suggested we buy strong DEET from an outdoor store and spray our clothing before we pack for this year's trip to the Dominican Republic. She said it'll last for several washes and for my one-year old daughter who is too young for a typhoid vaccine, this could save her from getting a mosquito-born illness.
Synthetic clothing may become sticky from the DEET so I recommend testing a small, inconspicuous area before spraying away. Spray it on your skin as well but make sure you read and follow all the instructions and warnings on the label. There are several natural and organic mosquito repellants on the market but I cannot vouch for their effectiveness. While I dislike the thought of spraying chemicals onto my skin I dislike mosquito bites even more.
3. Cover your body as much as possible. Another great way to avoid getting a mosquito bite is by simply covering up your skin. Wear light pants and a light long-sleeved shirt and your chances of being bitten go down.
4. Know the symptoms of dengue fever. Perhaps you may mistake this virus for the flu because they share many of the same symptoms. If you experience headaches, high fever, fatigue, and severe muscle or joint pain and have been to Key West, see your doctor. Dengue fever is sometimes called 'breakbone fever' because of the excruciating pain one may experience in their joints. Some individuals develop a rash with dengue as well. This virus is not contagious so you cannot pass it onto your loved ones.
5. Go to the Conch Republic Seafood Company. Rub shoulders at the bar with the friendly deckhands after their shift. Make small talk with the bartenders. Order a few cold ones and watch the day turn into night. When I lived in Key West, this was one of my favorite watering holes to head to after a long, hot day of work. I'm certain you'll love it too.
Be wary of the mosquitoes but don't let them scare you off because you'll be missing out on a bounty full of beauty and many friendly island characters. Go to Florida Key and Key West Tourism's website to plan your next vacation!