Emerging arboviruses in Harris County, Texas

Liliana F Rodriguez, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Harris County, which includes Houston, Texas, is an endemic and epidemic area for two viruses transmitted by arthropods (arboviruses). These viruses are maintained in cycles involving mosquitoes and wild birds, and transmission to humans is accidental. The majority of human infections is asymptomatic or may result in a flu-like syndrome. However, some infections can result in meningitis or encephalitis. These neuroinvasive infections may cause death, and those who survive may experience serious neurological complications requiring costly and lengthy medical care. The most important arboviruses in terms of morbidity are St. Louis encephalitis (SLEV) and West Nile (WNV) viruses. In fact, Harris County reports more SLEV encephalitis cases than any other county in the U.S. Most arboviral human cases occur from July through September, when mosquitoes are most active. Those at risk for encephalitis and death are the elderly and those with a history of hypertension or immunosuppresion. There is no specific treatment and no human vaccines are commercially available in the U.S. The approach for control of arboviruses in Harris County during epidemics is multidisciplinary and executed by several agencies. It includes surveillance, vector control, and educational messages for the population. Prevention of outbreaks consists of elimination of the vector and its breeding grounds, and practicing personal protective measures to prevent exposure to mosquitoes. Current findings indicate that mosquito-borne viruses other than SLEV and WNV could pose an additional threat for the population. Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) activity has been detected in dogs and sentinel chickens in Houston and surrounding areas. Several serotypes of dengue virus have caused recent outbreaks in south Texas, and some locally-acquired cases have been detected in Houston. Since the clinical presentation of all arboviruses that cause encephalitis is very similar, and current surveillance is focused on detecting SLEV and WNV, there is a possibility that other arboviruses could be present in the area but are not being detected. Additionally, Harris County's ample annual rainfall and flooding problems, warm weather, multiple mosquito species, local and migrating birds that are susceptible to arboviral infection, and a constant flow of goods and travelers from many parts of the world could favor the emergence or re-emergence of other arboviruses. The aims of this project were to determine if other arboviruses were circulating in the county, to assess the knowledge and attitudes about mosquito-borne viruses in a sample of the population, and to conduct an analysis of the initial WNV epidemic in Harris County. Through the retrospective analysis of clinical specimens collected during the 2002-2005 epidemic seasons, serologic evidence of dengue infection was detected suggesting the possibility that this virus may be co-circulating with SLEV and WNV. A cross-sectional survey revealed high awareness about arboviruses but not a consistent use of protective measures to avoid mosquitoes. The third component for this project included a retrospective review and geographical analysis of the 2002 WNV epidemic. Overall, this study documented valuable information about the dengue virus, a potentially emerging arbovirus in Texas, revealed the need for more educational preventative programs, reinforced the value of mosquito and avian surveillance, and indicated the importance of continuing to investigate the factors that contribute to the development of outbreaks.

Subject Area

Public health|Epidemiology

Recommended Citation

Rodriguez, Liliana F, "Emerging arboviruses in Harris County, Texas" (2008). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3297432.