Why Texas is a Hotbed For Tropical Diseases

The Texas climate, combined with rising rates of poverty, has created a perfect storm of conditions that spread tropical diseases like West Nile and dengue fever more easily.

By Alain Stephens & Leah ScarpelliJanuary 6, 2016 9:30 am

Heavy rains capped by periods of hot muggy weather, spare tires holding standing water, mosquitoes and fleas carrying dangerous strains of diseases that threaten the local populace. You’re probably picturing the Philippines or maybe Haiti, but what if I told you this scene is right here in Texas?

It’s no doubt that the weather has produced almost jungle-like climates. Now, medical experts are saying that’s just one of the factors that puts Texas at an elevated risk for the transmission of tropical disease. It’s a story that former Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Dr. Seema Yasmin has been following for the Dallas Morning News.

Texas is a hot zone for tropical diseases, Yasmin says, and they’re not new to the area.

“They’re not being brought by migrants,” she says. “All the research shows that these infections, the bugs that carry them, are here in Texas and have been here for many hundreds of years.”

Yasmin says the “perfect storm” of climbing temperatures and rising poverty rates creates conditions that spread tropical diseases more easily – diseases like West Nile virus, dengue and chagas disease.

Imagine a low-income family in Houston’s Fifth Ward or south Dallas, Yasmin says. Perhaps they live in a house that has gaps underneath the door, with broken windows and less than sturdy walls. Low-income Texans who become infected because of the kind of housing they live in are not likely to have access to good medical care, creating what Yasmin calls a “cycle” of poverty affecting infection rates.

“If you don’t have those basic safeguards, you’re at higher risk of becoming infected,” she says. “That means if you get one of these infections, you may suffer for a lot longer and it may take you a while to get an actual diagnosis and to get the treatment. By that point, the infection can really set in and cause longer-term issues.”

Yasmin says researchers at Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine are at the “forefront” of this study internationally. From their research, about 1.5 billion people are infected with tropical diseases around the world.

“But we can’t forget that there are many millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Texans who are infected with the same kinds of infections that we see in very, very poor countries in other parts of the world,” she says.