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Dengue fever also known as breakbone fever, is an infectious tropical disease caused by the dengue virus. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and a characteristic skin rash that is similar to measles. In a small proportion of cases the disease develops into the life-threatening dengue hemorrhagic fever, resulting in bleeding, low levels of blood platelets and blood plasma leakage, or into dengue shock syndrome, where dangerously low blood pressure occurs.
Dengue is transmitted by several species of mosquito within the genus Aedes, principally A. aegypti. The virus has four different types; infection with one type usually gives lifelong immunity to that type, but only short-term immunity to the others. Subsequent infection with a different type increases the risk of severe complications. As there is no commercially available vaccine, prevention is sought by reducing the habitat and the number of mosquitoes and limiting exposure to bites.
Schematic depiction of the symptoms of dengue fever
Typically, people infected with dengue virus are asymptomatic (80%) or only have mild symptoms such as an uncomplicated fever. Others have more severe illness (5%), and in a small proportion it is life-threatening The incubation period (time between exposure and onset of symptoms) ranges from 3–14 days, but most often it is 4–7 days. Therefore, travelers returning from endemic areas are unlikely to have dengue if fever or other symptoms start more than 14 days after arriving home. Children often experience symptoms similar to those of the common cold and gastroenteritis (vomiting and diarrhea) and have a greater risk of severe complications, though initial symptoms are generally mild but include high fever.
The mosquito Aedes aegypti feeding on a human host
Dengue virus is primarily transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, particularly A. aegypti. These mosquitoes usually live between the latitudes of 35° North and 35° South below an elevation of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft). They typically bite during the day, particularly in the early morning and in the evening. Other Aedes species that transmit the disease include A. albopictus, A. polynesiensis and A. scutellaris. Humans are the primary host of the virus, but it also circulates in nonhuman primates. An infection can be acquired via a single bite. A female mosquito that takes a blood meal from a person infected with dengue fever becomes itself infected with the virus in the cells lining its gut. About 8–10 days later, the virus spreads to other tissues including the mosquito's salivary glands and is subsequently released into its saliva. The virus seems to have no detrimental effect on the mosquito, which remains infected for life. Aedes aegypti prefers to lay its eggs in artificial water containers, to live in close proximity to humans, and to feed on people rather than other vertebrates.
When a mosquito carrying dengue virus bites a person, the virus enters the skin together with the mosquito's saliva. It binds to and enters white blood cells, and reproduces inside the cells while they move throughout the body. The white blood cells respond by producing a number of signaling proteins, such as cytokines and interferons, which are responsible for many of the symptoms, such as the fever, the flu-like symptoms and the severe pains. In severe infection, the virus production inside the body is greatly increased, and many more organs (such as the liver and the bone marrow) can be affected, and fluid from the bloodstream leaks through the wall of small blood vessels into body cavities. As a result, less blood circulates in the blood vessels, and the blood pressure becomes so low that it cannot supply sufficient blood to vital organs. Furthermore, dysfunction of the bone marrow leads to reduced numbers of platelets, which are necessary for effective blood clotting; this increases the risk of bleeding, the other major complication of dengue fever.
The World Health Organization's 2009 classification divides dengue fever into two groups: uncomplicated and severe. This replaces the 1997 WHO classification, which needed to be simplified as it had been found to be too restrictive, though the older classification is still widely used. Severe dengue is defined as that associated with severe bleeding, severe organ dysfunction, or severe plasma leakage while all other cases are uncomplicated. The 1997 classification divided dengue into undifferentiated fever, dengue fever, and dengue hemorrhagic fever. Dengue hemorrhagic fever was subdivided further into grades I–IV. Grade I is the presence only of easy bruising or a positive tourniquet test in someone with fever, grade II is the presence of spontaneous bleeding into the skin and elsewhere, grade III is the clinical evidence of shock, and grade IV is shock so severe that blood pressure and pulse cannot be detected. Grades III and IV are referred to as "dengue shock syndrome".