Web Zap*Germs Archive

January 19, 2006

Never Mind the Bird Flu: Here's the Yellow Fever

Aedes aegypti mosquito, carrier of yellow fever & dengue fever
Meandering through The Scientist after linking from its feature section on synthetic biology [see my synthetic-biology post], I ran across a very readable column by Jack Woodall, in which he asks us to forget about dying from avian flu -- for most people on Earth, a remote possibility at present -- and instead worry about Aedes aegypti mosquito-borne yellow fever and dengue fever.

Though there's a yellow-fever vaccine, Woodall says, relatively Americans traveling to tropical climates get the vaccine. He gives three examples of US travelers who skipped the vaccine, traveled to Latin America, and died of yellow fever shortly after returning home. In one of those cases, the traveler's home state is also home to Aedes aegypti, introducing the potential for a yellow-fever epidemic there.
After being almost eradicated from the Americas by a hemispheric campaign, the A. aegypti mosquito has reappeared in many places along the Gulf coast of the United States, including Houston, Galveston, and New Orleans. A yellow fever epidemic in Galveston in 1867 killed 1,100 people; another epidemic could do so again. [The 1793 yellow-fever epidemic killed 2,000 in Philadelphia, forcing President Washington and his Cabinet to flee the then-capital city.]

Of course, if yellow fever were to get into India, China, and southeast Asia, thousands of deaths would occur. To give an idea of the risk, consider that in 2005, 17,000 dengue cases were reported in Jakarta, more than 800 in New Delhi, 5,000 in Kuala Lumpur, and 13,000 in Singapore. Again, if dengue is present, yellow fever transmission can occur, too.
Woodall sums up this way:
I realize that no one is going to take a blind bit of notice of what I've written here, because you're all suffering from information overload about bird flu (much of it wrong), and you can't take any more dire prophecies of doom and gloom. But I've written it anyway: Forget about bird flu, and lose sleep about Yellow Jack instead.


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