Dengue fever is caused by a virus that belongs to the same family as hepatitis C, West Nile virus, and yellow fever. It is nicknamed "breakbone" of "bone-crusher" disease because those who fall victim report that they feel as if all their bones are broken — a very painful disease.
The virus cannot spread from human to human, so you can't catch it directly from another person who is infected. However, you can catch it indirectly from another person. In fact, that is probably how the disease came to the U.S. in recent days. Someone who became infected through a mosquito bite in another location travelled to Florida and was bitten by a local mosquito. That mosquito sucked up some of the virus-laden blood and then flew off to bite another person, transferring the virus in the process. The newly infected person, unaware that he is now a carrier, goes somewhere else and serves up his blood to yet another mosquito … and the cycle continues. This may sound slow and tedious, but the disease can spread like a wildfire under the right conditions.
The bad news is that there is no vaccine to prevent dengue fever, and there is no treatment for victims of the disease. You just have to ride it out and treat each symptom. Blood loss is a major factor, so it is important to avoid aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs because those may worsen the bleeding. Patients need to be under a doctor's care in a hospital setting where IV fluids can be applied to replace fluid loss.
So, since you can't vaccinate against it, and you can't treat it, what can you do?
- Avoid traveling to places known for dengue fever.
- Stay out of brushy areas or tall grass, because mosquitos like to hide in the foliage.
- Use mosquito repellent on skin and clothing. Repellent containing DEET is recommended. Check with your doctor.
- When you're going to be outdoors, wear clothing that provides maximum skin coverage — long sleeves, long pants that are tucked into socks, a mosquito net head covering.
- Use bug screens on windows and doors to keep the insects out of your house.
- Eliminate mosquito breeding sites around your property — these are anything where water can collect (buckets, old tires, hubcaps, etc). Drain puddle areas. Regularly change the water in birdbaths and pet dishes.
- If you become symptomatic, get to a doctor and report your travel history where you might have become infected.