Health officials with the Miami-Dade County Health Department confirmed on Thursday their first case of dengue fever in 50 years. Though Liliana Rivera, director of the health department, said the person diagnosed with the potentially deadly mosquito-borne virus recovered fully after a brief hospitalization, the announcement follows a May 21 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that described more than two-dozen cases of locally-acquired dengue fever in the resort town of Key West, Fla.
Meanwhile, local media said three cases of hookworm in Miami Beach were reported on Thursday, bringing the total number of recent confirmed cases of the parasitic infection to six.
While the infections themselves may have little to do with each other, their recent emergence in and around Miami -- one of the country's southernmost urban centers -- could be a sign that these infections may be establishing a foothold in the continental United States.
"I think it's an important issue," said Dr. Peter Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. "If these were diseases common among white people in the suburbs, we would never tolerate it."
Dengue fever -- the most common vector-borne viral disease in the world -- is an infection transmitted by mosquito bites. It can be debilitating, but is not usually fatal in otherwise healthy people. In those whose health has been compromised by poor living conditions, however, it can be deadly. Worldwide, it causes an estimated 50-100 million infections and 25,000 deaths each year.
"It's a very difficult problem," said Dawn Wesson, associate professor of tropical medicine at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. "If it wasn't, it wouldn't be such a widespread problem around the world."
Hotez, who is also a professor at The George Washington University's department of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine, published a study in 2008 in the journal Public Library of Science that detailed dengue and numerous other diseases that he categorizes as neglected infections of poverty.
The study led to legislation -- the Neglected Infections of Impoverished Americans Act -- that would address the problems of and urge funding for these diseases. The bill passed the House in September; it has been introduced in the Senate but has, as of yet, gone no further.
Dengue is a mosquito-borne disease, which means that it requires an infrastructure of sorts to spread -- in other words, the right type of mosquito. It is carried most often by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and less frequently, by Aedes albopictus.
These mosquitoes can be found in Florida and along the Texas-Mexico border -- the same places where recent cases have occurred.
"It's no surprise that we have been seeing transmission take place in the southern parts of the U.S.," Wesson said. "I would say that it's only a matter of time before we start seeing it in other areas."