Dengue fever historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Outbreaks resembling dengue fever have been reported throughout history.[1] The first definitive case report dates from 1789 and is attributed to Benjamin Rush, who coined the term "breakbone fever" (because of the symptoms of myalgia and arthralgia). The disease was named Dengue in 1779. The viral etiology and the transmission by mosquitoes were only deciphered in the 20th century. Population movements during World War II spread the disease globally.

History of Epidemics

The first epidemics occurred almost simultaneously in Asia, Africa, and North America in the 1780s. A global pandemic began in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and by 1975 Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever (DHF) had become a leading cause of death among children in many countries in that region. Epidemic dengue has become more common since the 1980s - by the late 1990s, dengue was the most important mosquito-borne disease affecting humans after malaria, there being around 40 million cases of dengue fever and several hundred thousand cases of Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever each year. There was a serious outbreak in Rio de Janeiro in February, 2002 affecting around one million people and killing sixteen.


The disease was named Dengue in 1779. The origins of the word "Dengue" are not clear, but one theory is that it is derived from the Swahili phrase "Ka-dinga pepo", which describes the disease as being caused by an evil spirit.[2] The Swahili word "dinga" may possibly have its origin in the Spanish word "dengue" (fastidious or careful), describing the gait of a person suffering dengue fever,[3] or, alternatively, the Spanish word may derive from the Swahili.[4]


  1. Gubler D (1998). "Dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever". Clin Microbiol Rev. 11 (3): 480–96. PMID 9665979.
  2. Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents
  3. Etymonline entry
  4. "etomologia: dengue" (PDF). Emerging Infectious Diseases. 12 (6): 893. 2006.