Getting ahead of climate-driven epidemics

How changing temps could affect transmission of dengue fever

July 31, 2023

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 In a Science on the Hill column published July 28 in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, Julie Spencer of Los Alamos National Laboratory's Information Systems and Modeling group described a science-based coping mechanism for climate change that could help prepare outdoor enthusiasts when mosquitoes carrying dengue fever invade new territory.

Almost half of the world’s population is now at risk for contracting dengue fever, also known as “breakbone fever,” an illness carried by a species of mosquitoes (Aedes aegyptia) that has recently expanded its range from tropical regions to more temperate ones in many parts of the United States.

A quarter of the people who become infected with dengue develop symptoms of illness — a potentially high fever, rash and severe muscle and joint pain. About 5% of those with symptoms develop severe dengue, which can become life-threatening within hours. The risk is even higher for infants and pregnant women.

No dengue vaccine is approved for use in the U.S., and no medication specific to dengue is available.

For now, dengue in the contiguous U.S. occurs in mostly isolated cases among travelers returning from the tropics, but that’s changing as the problematic mosquitoes travel northward.

While this future might be bleak, the good news is Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are working on a predictive computer model so in the future, you’ll know when outbreaks are happening, and you can take the precautions to protect your family.

Our team recently investigated how changing temperatures could affect dengue transmission under a climate-change scenario. The team extended previous epidemiological models by developing a computer model that allows both the mosquito lifespan and the incubation period to vary with temperature.

The model captures the effects of changing temperatures on mosquito dynamics and dengue transmission. This approach provides a way to explore realistic simulations of potential dengue outbreaks in cities in the southern U.S. where this species of mosquitoes has been observed.