SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rican health authorities warned Wednesday that the potentially deadly disease dengue fever was reaching epidemic proportions and called for a territory-wide campaign to eliminate breeding grounds of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
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Enid Garcia-Rivera, the U.S. territory’s secretary of health and epidemiology, said 2,343 confirmed cases of dengue had been reported since the beginning of the year, more than double the number of cases reported in the same period last year and the most since the dengue epidemic of 1994.
While no deaths have yet been confirmed, the disease is spreading rapidly, with more than 300 cases reported last week alone. Because milder forms can be mistaken for common illnesses like influenza, many victims may not seek medical attention, and the true number of infections could be five to 10 times greater, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
There is no drug to treat the more serious form, hemorrhagic dengue, which is fatal in about half of cases if untreated, but rest, fluids and pain relief can reduce death rates to about 1 percent, the CDC said.
Dengue fever, which is often called breakbone fever or bonecrusher disease because of the intense pain it causes in joints and muscles, is most prevalent during rainy seasons when standing water provides an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. It is primarily a problem in tropical slums, where trash collection and sanitation are not as advanced as in tourist areas.
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Health experts have predicted a surge of dengue fever throughout Latin America fueled by climate change, migration and faltering mosquito eradication efforts.
“It is indispensable that all zones are cleaned and there are no pockets of water that can harbor mosquitoes,” Garcia-Rivera said.
“We need to count on the commitment and participation of all sectors of society to manage and control dengue,” she said. “Given the length of the rainy season, the dengue mosquito can reproduce with astonishing speed.”
The CDC included Puerto Rico in an outbreak notice Tuesday warning tourists of the spread of dengue in South and Central America and the Caribbean, noting similar increases in Mexico, Brazil and Nicaragua. It advised travelers to use insect repellents containing DEET or Picaridin on exposed skin; to wear loose, long pants and long-sleeved shirts; and to empty or cover containers that can collect water.
MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson contributed to this report.