Two years ago I spent the summer in Mexico, where I first learned about dengue fever. It wasn’t a surprise - from gastrointestinal pains to air-quality concerns, I was convinced I was more likely to die of my own body’s failings than a kidnapping à la drug cartel. Dengue fever is a less-than-pleasant-sounding disease transmitted by mosquitoes that can cause fatal hemorrhagic fevers. My newfound awareness turned every mosquito into a potential cause of death and every open water container was a breeding ground for illness.
According to the World Health Organization, two-fifths of the world’s population are at risk for dengue. It is now endemic in over 100 countries, and estimates state that there may be more than 50 million cases each year. While I sprayed repellent in a varnish over my legs, I probably would have been more worried to learn that my own immune system could be a contributing factor. Recent research published in Science states that some of the body’s defenses against the virus actually help dengue fever infect a greater numbers of cells.
Researchers at the Imperial College London were trying to figure out why those who contract the dengue virus a second time have more severe symptoms. Their study suggests that antibodies called prM antibodies, created to fight the dengue virus, not only do not effectively kill the virus, but they actually help the virus establish itself if the body is infected a second time by a different strain. The scientists hope their research will aid in the creation of a vaccine – by finding out what doesn’t work, they can narrow down what does.
And then? We can begin to forget fearing the tiny insects and what their blood bears.