Are Caribbean Cruisers At Risk for Dengue Fever?

October 28, 2008
Think that norovirus is the only serious illness you can catch on a cruise vacation? Try dengue fever. In the Caribbean, the island of St. Maarten is, according to local news reports, experiencing an outbreak of dengue fever – an infection transmitted through mosquito bites with flu-like symptoms – and if you're not careful, you might find yourself laid up in bed after a visit.

The Daily Herald St. Maarten has reported that 72 new cases of dengue fever have been identified on the island during the first half of October. While the outbreak is not bad enough to warrant strong travel warnings from organizations like the World Health Organization or to cause cruise lines to cancel calls, travelers should be aware of the growing number of dengue fever cases and prepare accordingly.

Since St. Maarten, part of the Netherlands Antilles, is part of an island occupied by two countries (St. Martin is a French department) we presume that visitors to the latter are also impacted.

Here's what cruise travelers should know:

What is dengue fever? Dengue fever is an infection transmitted through mosquito bites. According to the CDC, symptoms include high fevers, severe headaches, joint and muscle pain, nausea and rash. The typical incubation period is 3 – 14 days.

How can I protect myself? There are no vaccines to prevent against dengue fever, so the best method of inoculation is to protect against mosquito bites. Use strong insect repellant on all exposed areas of skin, especially at dawn or dusk when mosquitoes are most active. Alternately, you can wear long-sleeved clothing and long pants. Dengue can be transmitted in both rural and urban areas.

How is St. Maarten responding to this outbreak? St. Maarten's Hygiene Department has scheduled fogging (spraying of insecticide) and has asked residents to check for and get rid of standing water, as this is where mosquitoes breed.

What do I do if I experience symptoms? Consult a physician. There's no specific medicine that cures dengue fever. Patients may be given medication to reduce fever and should try to stay hydrated.

By no means is dengue fever limited to St. Maarten (and St. Martin). Many tropical countries in the Caribbean are at risk for dengue fever outbreaks. In this case -- St. Maarten/St. Martin are very close to St. Barth's, St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, Tortola and Virgin Gorda -- and the infection could spread beyond its boundaries. Wherever you cruise in the Caribbean, be sure to pack bug spray – and don't forget to use it.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor