(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: dr_relling, piPhotos)
t r u t h o u t, July 21, 2010
With little fanfare on July 13, Florida officials released the findings of a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study conducted recently in the Key West area revealing that about 10 percent, or 1,000 people, of the coastal town's population are infected with the dengue fever virus.
While the July 13 release made little mention of it, the CDC study was provoked by an earlier 2009 report that a woman in New York State, who had returned from a Florida Keys' visit, had contracted dengue fever. Within a few weeks of this initial report, two additional cases were discovered in people who had returned from Key West. Over the next three months of 2009, an additional 26 cases were identified, all tied to visits to the town.
Because of these reported cases, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District conducted greatly increased aerial spraying to control mosquitoes. Following the spraying, a small amount of other cases were reported, including that of a 41-year-old Key West man who found blood in his urine and had severely aching joints. Following these additional reports, the CDC launched its study of antibodies in Key West residents and found that 5 percent of the town's residents have been exposed to the dengue virus. Said CDC dengue expert, Dr. Christopher J. Gregory, "The best estimate from the survey is that about 5 percent of [residents] was infected in 2009 with dengue." Gregory also stated, "We have known for a while it is a possible risk, but this outbreak shows it is more than possible: It is something that did happen and could happen again."
Despite the low-key nature of the Florida release, the Homeland Security Administration immediately issued a "terror alert" concerning the findings and Monroe County, within which Key West is located, also issued its own health advisory warning "effective immediately."
Said Bob Eadie of the Monroe County Health Department, "Dengue is rare in Florida, but not unknown. It's just one of several mosquito-borne illnesses monitored by the department and why we continually remind the public to take precautions against bites." Eadie added, "Many people may be infected and not develop any symptoms. Our department and the CDC will have to do some detective work after interviewing and drawing blood from residents who appear to be perfectly fine but may have the virus."
Dengue fever is a virus-based disease spread by the bites of mosquitoes. It can be caused by any one of four separate but related viruses carried by infected mosquitoes, most commonly the mosquito Aedes aegypti, found in tropic and subtropic areas. It is commonly found in Southeast Asia, South and Central America, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past several decades it has been consistently reported that dengue fever has been eradicated in North America. Dengue hemorrhagic fever is a far more severe form of the dengue virus. If untreated, it can be fatal. The chief symptoms of dengue fever are a high fever, severe headache, strong pain behind the eyes, joint, muscle and bone pain, easy bruising, rash and mild bleeding from the nose and gums. There is no cure or vaccine for dengue fever. One can only treat the symptoms in such ways as getting plenty of rest, drink plenty of water, take pain relievers with acetaminophen and promptly consult a skilled physician.
Hidden History of Dengue
It appears highly unlikely that any "detective work" performed by the CDC and Florida health officials will unearth evidence of dengue fever being imported into Florida, but that evidence certainly exists. Prior to the recent Key West findings and still today, the CDC has consistently reported that there have been no outbreaks of dengue fever in Florida since 1934 and none in the continental US since 1946. This report is incorrect.
Unknown to most Americans is that dengue fever has been the intense focus of US Army and CIA biological warfare researchers for over 50 years. Ed Regis notes in his excellent history of Fort Detrick, "The Biology of Doom," that as early as 1942 leading biochemists at the installation placed dengue fever on a long list for serious consideration as a possible weapon. In the early 1950s, Fort Detrick, in partnership with the CIA, launched a multi-million dollar research program under which dengue fever and several addition exotic diseases were studied for use in offensive biological warfare attacks. Assumably, because the virus is generally not lethal, program planners viewed it primarily as an incapacitant. Reads one CIA Project Artichoke document: "Not all viruses have to be lethal ... the objective includes those that act as short-term and long-term incapacitants." Several CIA documents, as well as the findings of a 1975 Congressional committee, reveal that three sites in Florida, Key West, Panama City and Avon Park, as well as two other locations in central Florida, were used for experiments with mosquito-borne dengue fever and other biological substances.
The experiments in Avon Park, about 170 miles from Miami, were covertly conducted in a low-income African-American neighborhood that contained several newly constructed public housing projects. CIA documents related to its top-secret Project MK/NAOMI clearly indicate that the mosquitoes used in Avon Park were the Aedes aegypti type. Specially equipped aircraft, in one of the larger experiments, released 600,000 mosquitoes over the area. In one of the Avon Park experiments, about 150,000 mosquitoes were dropped in paper bags designed to open upon impact with the ground. Each bag held about 1,000 insects. Besides dengue, some of the mosquitoes were also carrying yellow fever.
Avon Park residents, still living in the area, say the experiments resulted in "at least 6 or 7 deaths." One elderly resident told Truthout, "Nobody knew about what had gone on here for years, maybe over 20 years, but in looking back it explained why a bunch of healthy people got sick quick and died at the time of those experiments." Interestingly, at the same time experiments were conducted in Florida, there were at least two cases of dengue fever reported among civilian researchers at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
A 1978 Pentagon publication, entitled "Biological Warfare: Secret Testing & Volunteers," reveals that the Army's Chemical Corps and Special Operations and Projects Divisions at Fort Detrick conducted "tests" similar to the Avon Park experiments in Key West, but the bulk of the documentation concerning this highly classified and covert work is still held by the Pentagon as "secret." One former Fort Detrick researcher says the Army "performed a number of experiments in the area of the Keys," but that "not all concerned dengue virus."
In 1959, Fort Detrick launched its largest mosquito experiment called Operation Bellwether, consisting of over 50 field experiments. Some of these experiments, designed to ascertain the "rate of biting" and "mosquito aggressiveness," were conducted in partnership with scientists with the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where scientists bred their own strain of mosquitoes. Some of the Bellwether experiments were conducted in Florida, as well as in other states, including Georgia, Maryland, Utah and Arizona.
The 1978 Pentagon publication, along with two other Chemical Corps reports, reveal the identities of a number of the companies and institutions that assisted the Army in its offensive biological warfare experiments: Armour Research Foundation (1951-1954); the Battelle Memorial Institute (1952-1965); Ben Venue Labs, Inc. (1953-1954); University of Florida (1953-1956); Florida State University (1951-1953); and the Lovell Chemical Company (1951-1955).
In the spring and summer of 1981, Cuba experienced a severe hemorrhagic dengue fever epidemic. Between May and October 1981, the island nation had 158 dengue-related deaths with about 75,000 reported infection cases. Prior to this outbreak, Cuba had reported only a very small number of cases in 1944 and 1977. At the height of the epidemic, over 10,000 people per day were found infected and 116,150 were hospitalized. At the same time as the 1981 outbreak, covert biological warfare attacks on Cuba's residents and crops were believed to have been conducted against the island by CIA contractors and military airplane flyovers. Particularly harmful to the nation was a severe outbreak of swine flu that Fidel Castro attributed to the CIA. American researcher William H. Schaap, an editor of Covert Action magazine, claims the Cuba dengue outbreak was the result of CIA activities. Former Fort Detrick researchers, all of whom refused to have their names used for this article, say they performed "advance work" on the Cuba outbreak and that it was "man made."
In 1982, the Soviet media reported that the CIA sent operatives into Afghanistan from Pakistan to launch a dengue epidemic. The Soviets claimed the operatives were posing as malaria workers, but, instead, were releasing dengue-infected mosquitoes. The CIA denied the charges. In 1985 and 1986, authorities in Nicaragua accused the CIA of creating a massive outbreak of dengue fever that infected thousands in that country. CIA officials denied any involvement, but Army researchers admitted that intensive work with arthropod vectors for offensive biological warfare objectives had been conducted at Fort Detrick in the early 1980s, having first started in the early 1950s. Fort Detrick researchers reported that huge colonies of mosquitoes infected with not only dengue virus, but also yellow fever, were maintained at the Frederick, Maryland, installation, as well as hordes of flies carrying cholera and anthrax and thousands of ticks filled with Colorado fever and relapsing fever.
A review of declassified Army Chemical Corps documents reveal that the Army may have also been engaged in dengue fever research as early as the late 1940s. Several redacted Camp Detrick and Edgewood Arsenal reports indicate that experiments were conducted on state and federal prisoners who were unwitting exposed to dengue fever, as well as other viruses, some possibly lethal. Freedom of Information requests filed months ago for details on these early experiments remain unanswered.
Dengue Fever and BP Spill Complications
The timing of this outbreak of dengue fever presents two additional problems; the symptoms of dengue fever are very similar to that of exposures to chemicals such as those contained in crude oil and the dispersants currently being used in the contaminated areas of the Gulf of Mexico, potentially making it difficult to diagnose the source of a sufferer's symptoms. Worse yet, there looms the possibility that Corexit and other toxins present in the Gulf area may weaken the immune system, thus, setting the stage for more severe forms of the disease in people who are, or have previously been, exposed to the virus.
It is still unclear to what degree residents of the Gulf area, at large, have been or will be exposed to such chemicals in the long term, but there is mounting evidence that fishermen, cleanup workers, and others who spend significant time in contact with the Gulf waters are beginning to display symptoms consistent with chemically induced neurotoxicity. If dengue fever also spreads within the Gulf community, affecting a significant number of people, it will be increasingly difficult to differentiate the cause of symptoms in those who develop them; even in persons who test positive for dengue exposure, the additional possibility remains that chemical toxicity is present as well.
The presentation of dengue fever varies considerably from case to case. Numerous medical studies have identified asymptomatic infections, or infections that consist of only mild, flu-like symptoms that would likely not result in the sufferer seeking medical attention.
When more troubling symptoms are present, they vary considerably in severity. According to the CDC, milder cases of dengue fever are identified by a high fever accompanied by at least two of the following symptoms: severe headache; severe eye pain (behind eyes); joint pain; muscle and/or bone pain; rash; a mild bleeding manifestation such as bleeding gums, nose bleeds, or easy bruising; and low white cell count. In more severe cases, dengue can cause severe abdominal pain or persistent vomiting; red blotches or patches on the skin; more severe bleeding of nose or gums; vomiting of blood; black, tarry excrement (indicative of the presence of blood in the stool); drowsiness; irritability; cold or clammy skin; pallor; and difficulty breathing. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene has reported cases of dengue fever that resulted in neurological manifestations, as well.
Dengue fever can also cause a much more serious, hemorrhagic form of the disease, the presentation of which the CDC describes as follows:
"[A] fever that lasts from 2 to 7 days, with general signs and symptoms consistent with dengue fever. When the fever declines, warning signs may develop. This marks the beginning of a 24 to 48 hour period when the smallest blood vessels (capillaries) become excessively permeable ("leaky"), allowing the fluid component to escape from the blood vessels into the peritoneum (causing ascites) and pleural cavity (leading to pleural effusions). This may lead to failure of the circulatory system and shock and possibly death without prompt, appropriate treatment. In addition, the patient with DHF has a low platelet count and hemorrhagic manifestations, tendency to bruise easily or have other types of skin hemorrhages, bleeding nose or gums and possibly internal bleeding."
As if this were not troubling enough, let us compare the above symptom picture to the symptoms associated with exposure to the dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527. The exact risks of exposure to these chemicals have yet to be determined; in fact, the manufacturers' material safety data sheet (MSDS) for Corexit 9500 states: "No toxicity studies have been conducted on this product." The MSDS further states that one should not come in contact with the product or breathe its vapors and that adequate protective skin protection and breathing apparatuses should be worn when handling or working with the compound. Any hints of safe usage within the MSDS on these chemicals should be viewed from the following perspective: the MSDS data assumes limited exposure (for example, while applying the chemical) and the use of adequate protective gear. These statistics do not apply, therefore, to unprotected people who may be subject to long-term, consistent exposure.
Many toxicologists have raised grave concerns, however, about the risks that these dispersants may pose to residents of the Gulf of Mexico area. Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist, talked about her recent experience with shrimpers who had been working in the Gulf waters. In an interview on CNN, she addressed the situation of a shrimper who had thrown his net into water, causing the water to splash onto his unprotected skin. She reported that he developed a "headache that lasted 3 weeks, heart palpitations, muscle spasms, bleeding from the rectum ..." and continued, "and that's what this Corexit does, it ruptures red blood cells, causes internal bleeding and liver and kidney damage. ..." She asserts that the combination of oil from the well, combined with Corexit dispersant, increases the toxicity of both substances. In combination, she believes that they are skin permeable and that they aerosolize to produce a breathing hazard as well. The toxins can enter the body through the respiratory tract, but are unlikely to remain localized in the lungs, instead spreading throughout one's entire body system.
Numerous reports have come in from both residents of the Gulf area and journalists visiting the area that many people who are exposed to the water are beginning to experience health problems. Among the most commonly reported symptoms are burning eyes, skin rashes, lightheadedness, dizziness, difficulty breathing, transient numbness and shooting pains, persistent coughing, sore throats, muscle and bone aches, weakness and severe fatigue. More troubling reports, such as those of the shrimpers mentioned above, have included bleeding from the nose and from the rectum, as well as permanent numbness in extremities and complete loss of the sense of smell. It is generally accepted in the medical literature that, although the initial, acute presentation of toxic exposure is generally the most severe, symptoms may linger indefinitely or even result in permanent damage to the body.
Herein lies the dilemma: If a Gulf resident becomes ill, to what do we attribute his or her symptoms? In addition to the dispersants themselves, Gulf residents are potentially suffering from exposure to benzene and other toxic chemicals that are naturally present in crude oil, as well as several potentially toxic gases being released from the well. In combination with the dispersant, the exact toxicity risk of these chemicals remains unknown.
Add now, to the picture, the risk of having contracted dengue fever and the puzzle becomes more difficult to piece together. The CDC's 2009 survey contained samples from only 240 households and determined that about 5 percent of the residents had antibodies to the dengue virus, indicating either current infection or a prior exposure. This relatively small sample may not be indicative of the Florida population as a whole and may not be a valid indicator of the overall number of exposed people in the surrounding areas.
The medical literature indicates that dengue virus, like many other viruses, may remain in the body in a latent form; during latency, the virus is unlikely to cause symptoms. A second infection with dengue, however, can lead to a much more severe presentation of the disease and a greater likelihood of it progressing to its hemorrhagic (and potentially fatal) form. Likewise, the literature indicates that a severe assault to the immune system presents a risk of virus reactivation and resultant disease.
Dr. Shaw's assessment of the dangers of Corexit dispersant, particularly in combination with the other contaminants resulting from the damaged BP oil well, includes the potential for severe damage to the immune system. Such immune system suppression or damage, it seems, could then reactivate dengue fever in residents who carry the latent virus, perhaps even resulting in a more severe form of the disease's presentation.
Assuming the above quoted assessments of the current situation in Florida are accurate, the presence of the dengue virus in Florida at this time makes for a nightmarish picture. Not only is there a tremendous symptom overlap between dengue virus and toxin exposure, up to and including the potential for a hemorrhagic presentation of both, but there looms on the horizon a new and frightening possibility: The combined presence of this disease and a toxic environment might have the potential to combine, making an already tragic situation incrementally worse.
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is the author of "A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments" (TrineDay, 2010). Albarelli's book documents and details numerous CIA and Pentagon sponsored experiments on unwitting human subjects. Albarelli is a founding member of the recently formed North American Truth and Accountability Commission on Human Experimentation.
Zoe Martell is a lecturer in psychology at San Francisco State University; much of her work has focused on the experiences of people suffering from chronic illnesses. She is also an artist and is currently working toward a dual master's degree at San Francisco Art Institute.