The Big Island of Hawaii Is in a State of Emergency From Dengue Fever. Here's What Travelers Need to Know.

Hawaii Wellness
by Matt Hershberger Feb 11, 2016

THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII IS IN a state of emergency. Since September of last year, the island has seen 252 cases of dengue fever, a mosquito borne illness. Dengue is a particularly nasty virus that causes a high fever, a skin rash, headaches, joint pain, and vomiting. It can potentially be fatal, but if it’s caught early and treated properly, the death rate is below 1%.

The Big Island’s problem hasn’t yet expanded to the other islands of Hawaii, and Governor David Igye says the state of emergency won’t expand statewide unless it moves to other islands, or if Zika starts to spread as well. The Zika virus is a major concern, as it is spread by the same mosquito that spreads dengue. Neither disease is endemic to Hawaii, but they have both been imported by travelers. Hawaii is believed to have had the US-based case of Zika related birth-defects in a child last month, but the mother hadn’t been infected with the Zika in Hawaii: she got the disease during a visit to Brazil.

The state of emergency allowed Billy Kenoi, the Mayor of Hawaii County, to lift a ban on landfills accepting old tires, as old tires are known breeding grounds of mosquitoes, and can be more properly treated in landfills than out in public. Of the 252 known cases of dengue seen in Hawaii, only one of the cases remains contagious, though this is not proof of the disease’s decline: others may still be infected and not diagnosed, and mosquitoes may still carry the virus. Humans cannot pass dengue to one another, only via mosquitoes.

So what should travelers do?

As of yet, there’s no reason to cancel your trip to Hawaii. If you are going to islands other than the Big Island, there’s very little risk, as the disease has not yet been reported on those islands. If you’re going to the Big Island, you’re still probably safe. The Hawaii Tourism Authority released a statement saying, ““travelers should not be alarmed by the County of Hawaii’s state of emergency declaration for Hawaii Island or allow this decision to alter their travel plans to any of the Hawaiian Islands. This declaration is a good strategic move by the County of Hawaii, as it will provide government officials with additional funding and resources to eliminate dengue fever from Hawaii Island.”

The state of emergency, for the most part, just allows public officials to take more direct measures to end the epidemic, and it seems to be working so far, as South Kona, one of the areas most affected, has had its risk level reduced in the last day.

In short, if you’re traveling to the Big Island, you’re probably safe, but you can do a few things to make sure you’re safer. First and foremost: wear Deet-based insect repellent when you go out, and if possible, wear clothing with longer sleeves. You’re less at-risk at night, as Aedes Aegypti, the mosquito that spreads dengue and Zika, is more active during the day, but make sure there are screens on your windows, or just use air conditioning when you’re indoors.

If you do get infected, keep wearing deet so you don’t allow the disease to spread to others, and get proper medical treatment. Again: there is no Zika as of yet in Hawaii, and dengue is rarely fatal. Dengue is not linked to the same birth defects as Zika. There is no reason to cancel your travels, and if you do, you are unlikely to get any refunds unless you have CFAR (“Cancel For Any Reason”) travel insurance.

You can read more at our Zika travel guide here, and more on the link between climate change and mosquito-borne illnesses here.

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