How Brazil’s ferocious dengue fever outbreak is a warning to the world: Patients motionless on waiting room floors, wailing in agony from ‘bone breaking disease’

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Brazil has surpassed 390 deaths and 1.5M cases, nearing last year’s total of 1.6 M
  • Other countries, including Peru and Argentina are reporting hundreds of cases
  • READ MORE:  Brazil declares state of emergency due to surge in dengue fever

Dengue fever is spreading ferociously across much of South America, forcing patients to languish on hospital floors as doctors become overwhelmed.

Brazil has recorded more than 1.5 million cases and 390 deaths due to the disease this year alone, fast approaching the 1.6 million total cases confirmed in all of 2023.

And other countries on the continent, including Peru, Paraguay, and Argentina, are struggling to keep up with the widespread outbreaks. 

Doctors and patients in the capital, Brasilia, say it is creating scenes similar to the darkest days of Covid. Patients with the illness dubbed ‘bone breaking disease’ because of the incredible pain it causes to joints and bones can be heard wailing as overrun doctors struggle to keep up with demand.

Epidemiologists blame the global rise in temperatures, which allows the mosquito which carries the virus to live longer and thrive across a wider swathe of territory.

Hospitals have become overrun, forcing patients to wait for care on floors or in wheelchairs

Brazilian officials have begun fumigating the streets of major cities, hunting the mosquitoes that transmit dengue

Brazilian officials have begun fumigating the streets of major cities, hunting the mosquitoes that transmit dengue

It has prompted state health officials to roam 17 cities that have declared a state of emergency, fumigating properties and advising people on how best to avoid infection. 

The CDC has issued a warning about the increasing number of cases.

Gabriela Paz-Bailey, who specializes in dengue at the CDC, said: ‘Cases of dengue fever are rising at an alarming rate.

‘It’s becoming a public health crisis and coming to places that have never had it before.’

There is a risk that what is happening in South American could also occur in the US, largely across the south, and much of Europe, as temperatures continue to rise.

Florida reported a record 178 cases of local transmission last year. Hawaii, Texas, Arizona, and California have also reported community-level spread.

Albert Ko, an epidemiologist at Yale University, said: ‘There hasn’t been extensive transmission in the U.S., but that may change.

‘We should be concerned that a large epidemic season in Brazil and the rest of South America will drive spread and transmission to places in the US.’

Meanwhile, hospital beds have run out across Brazil. 

Loide Rocha dos Santos, 57, went to a crowded hospital last month ago and sensed the chaos immediately.

Dengue had reduced her blood platelet count to a dangerous low, yet the health clinic in the region of Gama could do little to accommodate her, according to the Washington Post.

She said: ‘The first two days, I had to sit in a wheelchair. They didn’t have a bed for me.’

Field hospitals located in strategic spots around Brazilian cities have struggled to keep up with the number of people needing care

Field hospitals located in strategic spots around Brazilian cities have struggled to keep up with the number of people needing care

Dengue, nicknamed the ‘bone-breaking disease’ for causing joint and muscle pain so severe that it feels as if the bones are breaking, is a virus that typically runs its course and resolves. But in as many one in 20 cases it can lead to bleeding and organ failure.

It most commonly causes a range of flu-like symptoms such as a fever, headache, pain, nausea, swelling, and a rash, for one to two weeks but it can develop into a severe and deadly infection. 

While cases and deaths in Brazil are skyrocketing, Peru is seeing a similarly large outbreak, with 32 death and 31,000 infections in the first two months of 2024 alone, an increase of 97 percent over this same time period last year.

The situation has become so dire that even tent hospitals erected in Brasilia and other cities at strategic points to triage patients with the virus.

Paraguay and Argentina have recorded more than 5 times the typical number of cases so far this year, with more than 150,000 and 57,000 cases, respectively.

The outbreaks in South America, which is currently experiencing the end of its summer season, could be a bellwether for what might come in the northern hemisphere.

Rising temperatures colliding with the El Nino phenomenon that brings intense rain has converted some countries into an oven where mosquitoes can thrive.

Thais dos Santos, a regional advisor on mosquito-born viruses at the Pan American Health Organization, said: ‘Arboviral diseases are these viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes are a really excellent sentinel for the impact of climate change and human health.’

The Aedes aegypti thrive in tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates. Warmer temperatures over longer warm seasons mean mosquitoes can live longer, even in just a few days, which drives up cases.

Ms dos Santos added: ‘Definitely, the warmer temperatures allow the conditions for better transmission of these viruses.

‘What we’re seeing is longer transmission periods. We’re seeing the virus be transmitted in areas that we had not seen before.’


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