Fact sheets / Dengue


Dengue, also known as dengue fever, is a viral disease transmitted to humans by mosquitoes of the genus Aedes. The incidence of dengue is currently increasing dramatically, and it is now one of the diseases said to be re-emerging. WHO estimates the annual number of cases to be 50 million, including 500,000 cases of dengue hemorrhagic fever, which has a case fatality rate of over 20%. Although initially seen only in the world's tropical and sub-tropical regions, dengue has now reached Europe, where the first indigenous cases were reported in France mainland in 2010.

Causes and origins

Dengue is an arboviral disease (a virus transmitted by insects), belonging to the Flavivirus genus of the Flaviviridae family, like West Nile virus and yellow fever. It is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus when the insects feed on human blood. The dengue virus strains are divided into four different serotypes: DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3 and DEN-4. Acquired immunity as a result of infection by one of the serotypes provides protection against that particular serotype, but not against the others. Consequently, a person may be infected by all four serotypes during the course of a lifetime. An effective vaccine against dengue should therefore convey protective immunity against all four serotypes.


Classical dengue

Classical dengue begins suddenly after an incubation period of two to seven days, with the onset of a high temperature, often with headaches, nausea, vomiting, joint and muscle pain and a skin rash similar to that of measles. After three or four days there is a brief remission before the symptoms worsen, with possible conjunctival hemorrhaging, nose bleeds or ecchymosis. Symptoms then regress rapidly after another week. Recovery follows a convalescence of around two weeks. Although highly debilitating, classical dengue is not considered a serious disease, unlike hemorrhagic dengue.


In some patients, for reasons unexplained, the clinical presentation of the disease can develop into two serious forms: hemorrhagic dengue and dengue shock syndrome, which is fatal. The hemorrhagic form of the disease, which occurs in approximately 1% of dengue cases in the world, is extremely serious: it brings a persistent high temperature, and is often characterized by multiple hemorrhages, in particular in the gastro-intestinal tract, skin and brain. Recovery can be rapid, complete and without sequelae. Particularly in children under 15, a state of hypovolemic shock can sometimes ensue (with a decrease in temperature, clamminess and a weak pulse, indicating circulatory collapse), causing abdominal pain and, in the absence of intravenous fluids, death.

In all cases it is useful to confirm the etiology with a rapid and precise virological diagnosis, both to establish appropriate patient care and to allow public health surveillance systems to issue an alert and step up vector control measures.


Dengue is currently considered to be a re-emerging disease. With economic globalization and the greater movement of people and goods, it is spreading to new geographical locations, increasingly thriving in urban environments and causing epidemics on a larger scale than ever before. The severe forms of dengue have been more and more widely reported during recent outbreaks.

Originally a tropical disease

Dengue is rife in all intertropical regions. Although until recently restricted to South-East Asia (440,000 cases in China in 1980, 200,000 cases in Thailand in 1987), it is now spreading inexorably to the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific (32,800 cases in Tahiti, Moorea and French Polynesia in 2001), the French West Indies (2003, 2006-2008 and 2009-2010), and Latin America, where the annual number of cases multiplied by 60 between 1989 and 1993 in comparison to the previous period (1984-1988).

Since the end of 2009, this disease has soared to epidemic proportions in the West Indies where, in September 2010, there were over 40,000 suspected cases and 5,500 confirmed cases (Source: InVS - French Institute for Public Health Surveillance).

The first cases of hemorrhagic dengue appeared in Cuba and the Caribbean in 1981, and reappeared in 1996, after a 15-year interval. This worrying resurgence of dengue in Latin America and the Caribbean appears to be linked to the doubtful effectiveness of mosquito vector eradication programs in this region of the world. Other contributory factors appear to be demographic growth, uncontrolled urban development, natural disasters and the impoverishment of populations affected by the disease. Dengue has a major impact on the economies of the countries in which it is rife.

Moving towards colonization of temperate zones

In the last few years the secondary vector of dengue in Asia, Aedes albopictus, has colonized North America and Europe, including France. Its ability to hibernate has enabled it to subsist in these regions during cold spells. There is now a very real risk of dengue transmission in these regions. In 2010, the first two indigenous cases of dengue were reported in South-East France.

Fighting the disease

There is currently no specific treatment nor vaccine available for fighting this disease, but a number of multi-disciplinary studies are underway. The only existing means of fighting this disease are the control of mosquito vectors in the regions concerned and individual measures to protect against mosquito bites.

At the Institut Pasteur

Dengue is being extensively studied at the Institut Pasteur, with several teams working on complementary and multidisciplinary areas in both fundamental and applied research (diagnostics, therapies, vaccinology, etc.).

The Flavivirus-Host Molecular Interactions Unit, led by Philippe Desprès, is conducting a number of projects, particularly on the physiology of infection or research into new vaccine and anti-viral therapies. The unit is involved in the KerARBO project, a program financed in 2012 by the French National Research Agency and coordinated by the Institute for Research and Development (IRD) in Montpellier. The KerARBO program aims to provide insight into the replication mechanisms of the virus at the inoculation site, in other words where the skin has been bitten by the mosquito. It also aims to develop innovative anti-viral strategies. In collaboration with the Laboratory for Urgent Response to Biological Threats at the Institut Pasteur, the Flavivirus-Host Molecular Interactions Unit has also developed an innovative technological platform which conducts a patented process to study the prevalence of dengue in populations within endemic regions.

The Viral Genomics and Vaccination Unit
(led by Frédéric Tangy) in collaboration with the Flavivirus-Host Molecular Interactions Unit has developed a vaccine candidate against the four dengue serotypes based on the use of pediatric measles vaccine. A phase I clinical trials on this candidate vaccine measles-dengue is planned soon by the austrian biotech company THEMIS Biosciences, based in Vienna.

Anavaj Sakuntabhai, head of the Functional Genetics of Infectious Diseases Unit, has also been coordinator of the DENFREE program since January 2012. This ambitious international project aims to provide insight into dengue epidemics – now rapidly spreading to regions, including Europe, where the disease was previously not found – with a view to containing them. The scientists particularly hope that the results of the DENFREE program will, in the longer term, provide an evaluation of the potential risks of epidemics occurring, highlight the most effective mosquito control measures and develop a more sensitive and specific diagnostic kit than the kit currently available.

The Arboviruses and Insect Vectors Laboratory
, led by Anna-Bella Failloux, is concentrating on mosquito vectors and their ability to transmit the virus.

The Genotyping of Pathogens and Public Health Platform (PF8), led by Sylvain Brisse and Valérie Caro, is responsible for sequencing viral strains, and works in collaboration with the other campus-based units.

The Structural Virology Unit, led by Felix Rey, is working on the 3D viral structure, using this approach to try to determine drugs to block the virus.

The team under Hugues Bédouelle, in the Molecular Prevention and Therapy of Human Diseases Unit, has developed recombinant antigens of the dengue virus, enabling serological diagnosis of a recent dengue infection.

Research is also being carried out within the Institut Pasteur International Network, with the implementation of collaborative work on dengue. In this the network can draw upon its solid and recognized structure and close proximity to regions and populations exposed to the virus.

Recently, several Institut Pasteur teams, coordinated by Antoine Gessain, were brought together under the DEVA Transversal Research Program. This program has developed a molecular diagnostic tool for the Chikungunya, dengue and West Nile viruses on the Institut Pasteur Campus in Paris. It is a DNA microarray technology enabling diagnosis of acute viral infection using a biological fluid such as blood or serum. This microarray is able to characterize the genome of the virus(es) present in the infected biological sample.

October 2012