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The Infectious Diseases Affecting Latin America That All Americans Need to Know About

Dr. Espinal

Director of the Global Health Consortium at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health at Florida International University

Infectious diseases like dengue fever, Zika, and malaria are spreading throughout Latin America. Now COVID-19 is a concern, too.

“This is a pandemic that shows how unprepared we are still in terms of community management and health services, and preparation and infrastructure,” said Dr. Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health at Florida International University. “It’s a virus that came to really show us the deep inequities in health and social settings that existed before COVID-19.”

An infectious disease expert, Dr. Espinal says the novel coronavirus is hitting Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Haiti hard. In addition to limited global knowledge of how COVID-19 spreads, these areas lack infrastructure and have low testing capacity. 

Rising risks

Other viruses are on the rise, too, including dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral infection that causes a flu-like illness. Last year saw the highest number of dengue cases ever reported globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) says half of the world’s population is at risk of this serious illness and estimates there are 100-400 million cases each year.

“Dengue is the biggest concern,” said Dr. Espinal, noting it’s impacting large populations in Latin America with serious outbreaks and high mortality. 

He says people with this virus often end up getting hospitalized too late in their illness and develop severe infections that turn into hemorrhages.

The zika virus (mosquito-borne flavivirus) can cause a fever, rash, and headaches. Infected people can transmit Zika during sex and a pregnant mother can give it to her fetus, where it can result in a smaller-than-normal head size and congenital malformations. Once a person gets Zika, they develop a strong immunity.

“Immunity in the community plays a very important role in controlling Zika and preventing large outbreaks today,” Dr. Espinal said. “Very solid immunity is what we hope to have with COVID-19. We don’t know yet. It’s too early to predict.”

Malaria, a life-threatening disease with symptoms that include fever and chills, is caused by the transmission of parasites to people via bites from infected mosquitoes. WHO reports almost half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. Last year, 228 million cases were reported. 

These three diseases are vector borne, meaning they are transmitted to humans by bites from infected vectors, in these cases, mosquitos.

Elimination plan

The Global Health Consortium, an accelerator for multidisciplinary initiatives addressing public health challenges worldwide, is working with Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and WHO to end these dangerous diseases. 

Their Elimination Initiative (EI) will guide countries as they work toward eliminating priority communicable diseases and related conditions, including malaria and several neglected infectious diseases. The goal is to be free of the burden of these diseases and others in the Americas by 2030.


They have four pillars of action, including strengthening the integration of health systems and services delivery; strengthening strategic health surveillance and information systems; addressing the environmental and social determinants of health; and strengthening governance stewardship and finance.

To eradicate these diseases, we must control mosquito populations by eliminating places where they breed. Aerial spraying of houses and buildings can reduce populations of adult mosquitoes and their larvae.

Good sanitation and having access to clean water are essential to controlling and eliminating these diseases. Having large community engagement can also educate residents about risks and help people reduce transmission.

What’s at stake

A failure to act could have global consequences. Dr. Espinal says that due to climate change, there’s already a big increase of vector-borne diseases in the United States, including in Florida and states that Mexico. There have also been cases of Zika and malaria in Florida.

He says partnership and collaboration are essential. 

“Without community engagement, there will not be any success of any strategy for vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, zika, and now COVID-19 as well,” he said.

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