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Why Texas is a Hotbed for Tropical Diseases

Hundreds of thousands of Texans are infected by tropical diseases, some of which are spread through mosquitoes.
Image via Flickr/US Department of Agriculture (CC BY 2.0)
Hundreds of thousands of Texans are infected by tropical diseases, some of which are spread through mosquitoes.

From Texas Standard:

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 area of 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.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Alain Stephens heads up investigative reports for Texas Standard. A graduate of the University of North Texas and a veteran of two of the U.S. armed forces, Alain served both in the Coast Guard and the Air Force. His work has won accolades for exposing how the state pays those with disabilities below minimum wage, as well as the fast-tracking of juveniles to adult prisons. Contact Alain at, or (512) 232-6173.
Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.