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‘Locally acquired’ dengue fever reported in Miami-Dade

The first “locally acquired” case of dengue fever this year has been reported in Miami-Dade County, health officials said Thursday.

The patient, a woman in her late 60s, developed a fever in early September, and laboratory tests found she was infected with dengue. Because she has no history of travel, health officials confirmed she was bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease in Miami-Dade County.

“Dengue is transmitted by the bite of the mosquito called Aedes aegypti, and this specific species is present in our community,” said Dr. Alvaro Mejia-Echeverry, a medical epidemiologist with the Miami-Dade Health Department. “This disease cannot be transmitted person to person, but we need the community to take action to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes.”

A handful of local cases cropped up in Miami-Dade in 2010 and 2011, and the first confirmed dengue fever infection this year has health officials urging the public to “drain and cover” as the best way to avoid a more serious outbreak.

The “drain” prevention strategy aims to eliminate standing water where mosquitoes breed. South Florida residents should check their backyards for birdbaths, old tires, tarps, water bowls and gutters for even small amounts of water that could host mosquito eggs.

The “cover” part of the operation refers to the home and skin. People are encouraged to install screens over windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out of the house. To protect from bites, wear long pants and sleeves or spray insect repellant on exposed skin.

Mejia-Echeverry did not specify where in the county this month’s dengue victim lives, but he said Mosquito Control went to her home after the case was confirmed and exterminated mosquitoes in the area.

Dengue fever infects as many as 100 million people worldwide every year, especially in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There is no vaccine or specific medication to treat infection.

Symptoms include high fever, severe headache, joint and bone pain, rash and mild bleeding or bruising. Because the symptoms are similar to the flu, experts say the vast majority of cases go unreported. Only about 1 percent of cases develop complications that could be deadly, especially for young children and the elderly.

The woman who was infected this month is recovering well, doctors said.

In 2009, dengue fever struck Key West for the first time in 73 years, infecting 27 people. There were 66 cases in 2011, prompting Florida Keys Mosquito Control to consider releasing genetically modified insects into the wild to decimate the disease-carrying population of Aedes aegypti.

This controversial technique has already been tried in parts of Brazil, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands with what appears to be considerable success. The mutant male mosquitoes, developed by British biotech company Oxitech, mate with native females and produce offspring with a lethal genetic modification.

A Key West town hall meeting last November to discuss the option met vehement opposition from locals who decried scientists’ efforts to “play God.” Supporters claimed that a few million “autocidal” insects are better than blanketing the area with pesticides.

A similar campaign in the late 1990s helped eradicate the invasive Mediterranean fruit fly in Florida.

Follow Anna Edgerton on Twitter @AnnaEdge4.