Jamaica’s dengue fever outbreak shows the deadly effects of record heat
Dengue fever is a climate-sensitive disease that is spread through the saliva of an infected female Aedes mosquito when it bites an uninfected person. Dengue fever presents with high fever, severe headache, flu-like symptoms, intense joint and muscle pain, and other flu-like symptoms. It is usually a mild disease that can be adequately treated with rest, hydration and acetaminophen/paracetamol.
However, it can also be severe, requiring hospitalisation and, in rare cases, causing death. Its most severe form is dengue haemorrhagic fever. The virus has four strains: Denv-1, Denv-2, Denv-3, and Denv-4. These strains are distinct, and immunity to one does not provide protection from the others. Denv-2 is the most severe strain. Exposure to one strain after being infected with another increases the severity of the disease, and repeated infection increases the risk of acquiring dengue haemorrhagic fever.
Before 2007, the frequency of dengue outbreaks in Jamaica was once every 10 years; after 2007, the frequency increased to one every three to four years. The last epidemic was in 2019. While other risk factors such as behaviour and environment are implicated in the spread of dengue, the climate crisis is believed to be a significant contributor to the frequency of outbreaks, with the increase in temperature being the primary reason.
Small island states often feel as if we are in a constant state of recovery from the impacts of the climate crisis. Recovery from extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones; recovery from disease outbreaks exacerbated by climate change; recovery from sea level rise causing coastal erosion and salinisation of our water and land. We have repeatedly lost land, lives and livelihoods because of the climate crisis, a phenomenon to which we collectively contribute less than 1%.
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