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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

What’s with these Vector-borne Neglected Tropical Diseases?

Peter Hotez and Serap Aksoy, co-Editors in Chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diaseases, contemplate the recent rises in various vector-borne NTDs around the world

In 2013 both chikungunya and Zika virus infection are believed to have first emerged in the Western Hemisphere where both viruses now affect much of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean region and also threaten the United States.  Chikungunya made its first appearance on the Caribbean island nation of Saint Martin at the end of 2013 and has since spread throughout much of the Americas, including the first locally acquired case in Texas reported this year.  Similarly, molecular clock studies indicate that Zika probably first entered the Americas between May and December of 2013 before also spreading throughout Latin America and the Caribbean region, and there are fears that transmission of Zika might start by later this summer in the continental US.

While the rapid dissemination of these arbovirus infections in the Western Hemisphere is impressive, this month in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, Peter Hotez reports on an equally troubling  situation emerging in Southern Europe where in recent years we have also seen the uptick of arbovirus infections such as dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus infection, in addition to leishmaniasis, and even schistosomiasis (transmitted by a snail vector).  Indeed, while great progress has been made in malaria and some neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) through mass drug administration and other approaches, overall we have seen dramatic increases in the major vector-borne NTDs.

The basis for why we are seeing a rise in these tropical infections is unknown.  In another PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases article published earlier this year, Peter Hotez suggested that new forces created through human activity, including climate change, deforestation, urbanization, and poverty could be important factors.

A take-home lesson is that, to understand complicated occurrences such as the rise of vector-borne NTDs in Latin America and Europe, we’ll need to consider establishing new and interdisciplinary dialogues between biomedical scientists interested in tropical infections and social scientists, including economists and anthropologists, and earth scientists interested in the environment.  In an earlier piece Peter Hotez indicated that a strange “new normal” may be happening with tropical infections.   To figure this out we’re going to need to leave our academic silos and comfort zones and collaborate with colleagues in new areas in order to tackle these new phenomena.  In that spirit, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has now launched an innovative Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) program.  That’s a good beginning!


Note Added July 11, 2016: The Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) program, which is a joint initiative of National Science Foundation–National Institutes of Health-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, recently funded nine rapid response grants totaling $1.7 million to study the ZIKA epidemic (


Peter J Hotez MD PhD is Co-Editor in Chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.  He is also Professor of Pediatrics, Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics, and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, USA.

Serap Aksoy PhD is Co-Editor in Chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. She is also Professor of Epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health.


Featured image credit: jentavery, Flickr

  1. There continues to be progress in the reduction and control of Venezuela’s vector-borne helminth infections, but the abrupt rise of malaria, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, and arbovirus infections presents a concerning and troubling situation that may be reaching crisis proportions, with spread of these diseases now occurring from Venezuela to adjacent countries. Further adding to the Venezuelan crisis, there have been attacks and vandalism on the nation’s scientists and institutions. For example, the Instituto de Medicina Tropical of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, a leading center of excellence in the Americas, has suffered repeated episodes of vandalism, with destruction of scientific equipment, records, and samples, forcing it to suspend operations. Our understanding is that this institution may not be the only one affected in Venezuela.

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