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Yellow Fever Outbreak In Brazil Possible Threat To Florida

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A large, ongoing yellow fever outbreak in Brazil has the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionwarning people not to travel there unless they get vaccinated against the deadly mosquito-borne illness. 

With Florida being a hub for visitors from South and Central America, some health officials are concerned yellow fever, which is spread by the same mosquito that carries the Zika virus, could make its way to the United States.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini spoke with Dr. Vilma Vega, Medical Director at CAN Community Health and infectious disease expert, about how concerns regarding yellow fever compare to the panic communities felt during the Zika scare in 2016:

Hundreds of people have died in Brazil this year from yellow fever, including some travelers, none of whom were American. But with Florida being a hub for South and Central American visitors, is the United States at risk?

Yes, there is always a concern that any of these mosquito-borne illnesses can make it to our borders, mainly because we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of travelers every year, especially to the South Florida region.

The theories [about yellow fever] are far-reaching, all possible. I think our government and especially our airports will be on surveillance because they have been on surveillance for the Zika virus. So they will continue to be on surveillance and now even more so, I’m sure, will be monitoring people coming out of Brazil.

I think that it is a concern. Is it as much of a concern as Zika? It’s hard to know, I think only time will tell. Unfortunately, like every other disease we know, until the first contraction of the disease in the United State occurs we often times have to wait and hold.

The United States hasn’t had a yellow fever outbreak in over 100 years so many people may not be familiar with the disease. What exactly is yellow fever?

Yellow fever is a mosquito-contracted infection; it’s a virus. Once that mosquito bites you it could be 3-6 days before you develop symptoms. Symptoms can include fevers, chills, nausea, vomiting – in general just like any virus. The majority of patients get a little bit better and it may eventually last kind of like a long-term viral infection with fatigue and some generalized body aches.

However for another percentage of people, which is about 1 in 7 people who actually contract the disease, you can actually get a much more severe life-threatening disease. More than 40 percent of people die from that, so it can be very serious. As a matter of fact there is no treatment for it which is why it becomes more alarming for people. If they do not get vaccinated and they contract it, that percentage of people who get the severe disease, there will be nothing else to treat them with.

There is a yellow fever vaccine, whereas there was no vaccine against Zika (one is currently being tested). But the CDC warns there is only a limited supply.

There has been a limit of yellow fever vaccine for years, so it’s not an easy vaccine to find in the United States. I do not recommend you get it unless you are travelling into these [yellow fever-prone] areas. Number one, because it’s a vaccine that can have side effects like anything else; and also because there is a shortage and we want to make sure that the vaccine is available for those who really do require it for travel.

How do doctors and local governments concerns regarding yellow fever right now because of what’s going on in South America compare to 2016, when the Zika outbreak really caused a lot of panic?

One of the reasons about the Zika outbreak was the amount of cases, the immensity – we were talking about over 40,000 cases back then. The other problem was the fact that you had so many problems with the nervous system and birth defects in the children. At that time when we saw the rise in Brazil, then that became an alarm for us because obviously our borders were open and we knew there was a problem that was happening with the pregnant women.

That led to very rapid, tight measures to figure out what to do to protect our borders. And of course we had some cases that started coming in and from there it has grown a lot. We know that even up to this year we’ve had a little under 100 cases of Zika infections that have been proven in the United States just this year. But we realize that had we not revved up our protection, our surveillance, we would have been in a lot more trouble.

So all of these [mosquito-borne illnesses] are concerns for us. So I say be very careful, wear protective clothing, wear insect repellant and make sure you take vaccinations or preventative medicine if you’re travelling to areas where there is a high risk for certain diseases.

Do you think efforts to combat Zika will now put us in a much better position if yellow fever does pose a risk to the U.S. than we would have been a few years ago?

Oh yes, we have learned a lot. Number one, government funding for this and being able to handle these sorts of epidemics that come across our borders.

And then finally the fact that we’ve got the vaccine. We have to remember that when we had Zika there was no vaccine, so the alarm was, “What can we do?” It’s one thing to try and prevent it by shutting down our borders, but at least with yellow fever we have a vaccine. So if there is any remote concern, then obviously the big issue would be to rev up production of the vaccine so that we can have it widely available within the United States if needed.

Do you think the situation in Brazil is improving as the year is moving forward?

Well I think it’s a continued case, and I think it’s going to get worse. The reality is that, just like with Zika, it took a while for it to calm down and it’s [Zika] still ongoing in Brazil. So I think we’re dealing with an ongoing problem, it may continue to grow. Right now they are in their winter time while we are in summer, so that might ease up the transmission rates. But once the summer months come back to them, that [transmissions] may rev up and continue on.

So it will be on them [Brazil] to really be aggressive about their vaccinations over there because that’s where the key is; if we can vaccinate people over there and prevent any further transmission of the virus than that will protect us and any other travelers from other parts of the world.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.