Many people in the world have no idea about dengue fever, while others are all too aware of its dangers and maybe even live in fear of its potentially fatal consequences. Since there is no specific vaccine or treatment for dengue fever, tools for preventing and controlling outbreaks are an immediate priority. This week a group of leading scientists from around the world are meeting in Umeå, Sweden, to form a new global consortium called DengueTools, coordinated by Umeå University's Centre for Global Health Research and funded by the European Union. We will aim to translate cutting-edge science on dengue into tools that will really help people who live in affected areas.
Let's see the basic facts. Dengue fever is a viral disease, spread by mosquito bites. Outbreaks most often occur in warmer locations, often around big cities. Currently there is concern over thousands of cases around Lahore, Pakistan causing schools to close and generally disrupting life. Even the Prime Minister of Trinidad was recently infected.
It's an unpleasant illness, with high fever, muscle and joint pain, and sometimes bleeding. Many people who get the disease recover fully, but a significant number of deaths also occur, even given good medical care, since there is no specific treatment. The ever-increasing extent of international travel is also a cause for concern: someone infected by a mosquito in one place may travel in perfect health to another part of the world, and be bitten by an uninfected mosquito around the time their symptoms develop. After another 10 days or so, that mosquito can become infective and start a whole new outbreak of the disease.
So what will our new DengueTools consortium aim to achieve? We have a complex programme of research lined up involving European researchers as well as teams from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Brazil. We will work in three main areas. Firstly, because dengue fever outbreaks occur erratically, we need to understand more about how to predict potentially dangerous epidemics. Concerns about climate change - and its possible effects on the mosquitoes that transmit dengue - also come in to this. Secondly, because children are a key risk group, we will look at innovative ways of protecting them from infection. One strategy we will test is whether insecticide-treated school uniforms can prevent disease transmission. Thirdly, in today's interconnected world, travel means that the spread of dengue fever into previously unaffected areas is a real risk, possibly spreading into Europe in the future. We need to understand more about these risks.
"Travellers come back to Europe from tropical areas every year, and a few bring dengue viruses with them. This causes them suffering, as well as a diagnostic challenge for their physicians, and the risk of new dengue transmission. We need to know what is going on in order to respond to these challenges."
Prof. Duane Gubler, Director of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore is a key member of DengueTools. He commented
"The increasing geographic spread of the dengue viruses and the mosquitoes that transmit them has resulted in a dramatic global increase in the extent of dengue epidemics. The diverse scientific expertise brought together in this EU-funded DengueTools programme will allow the development of desperately needed novel tools for more effective surveillance, prevention and control."
DengueTools' scientific leader is Prof. Annelies Wilder-Smith. She says
"It's so exciting to be working with this group, which contains so many of the world's leading dengue researchers and offers real hope for people around the world at risk of this nasty disease".
DengueTools will soon have a website with a lot more details at www.DengueTools.net - look out for further developments!