The Cable

Deadly Yellow Fever Outbreak in Brazil Sparks Fears of Zika-Like Epidemic

Brazilian authorities work to prevent history from repeating itself.


There’s an outbreak of a deadly mosquito-borne illness in Brazil that has health officials worried — and this time it’s not Zika, but yellow fever.

On Monday, Brazilian authorities announced new tallies of a deadly outbreak of yellow fever in the eastern state of Minas Gerais. With fresh memories of the Zika epidemic, international health officials worry Brazil’s new outbreak could trigger a large-scale epidemic if it isn’t curtailed in time.

Brazil has recorded 25 deaths, 47 cases, and 160 suspected cases of yellow fever as of Monday. “The introduction of the virus in these areas could potentially trigger large epidemics of yellow fever,” the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in a statement released on Jan. 13 as the outbreak first emerged.

The WHO is concerned yellow fever could quickly spread from the outbreak’s ground zero to other states in the north and west because of the region’s low rates of vaccinations and mosquito-friendly environments. The governor of Minas Gerais declared a state of emergency, while the Brazilian Ministry of Health deployed technical teams to respond to and surveil the outbreak.

The WHO said the Zika virus “further complicated” Brazil’s response to the yellow fever outbreak, which was first reported on Jan. 6. Brazil, the epicenter of the global Zika epidemic, recorded over 214,000 cases of Zika by the time the epidemic abated, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

Yellow fever has no cure. Most who are infected get mild fever-like symptoms, but about 15 percent of cases develop severe and sometimes fatal symptoms including high fever, jaundice, bleeding, and organ failure, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

A deadly yellow fever outbreak in Angola, like Brazil a lusophone country and former Portuguese colony, killed 345 and infected 3,000 last year. Angola, in turn, announced its first cases of the Zika virus earlier this month. Africa accounts for most of the world’s yellow fever outbreaks.

The WHO has not tracked any yellow fever outbreaks in Central or North America in its records, which go back to 2000. Brazil’s last recorded yellow fever outbreak, which infected 48 and killed 13, was in February 2008.

Photo credit: DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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