Kicked back in a chair is Joel Biddle, a mellow, slow-talking, Bermuda-born man who operates at a cosmic tempo that matches the pace of life near the southernmost point of the continental United States. His thick, bushy white hair, lazily parted to the side, flops around as he gestures with his meaty hands. Biddle's smooth skin and striped pants belie his 68 years.

Three years ago, Biddle sat on the edge of his bed in tremendous pain staring at his feet. His bones ached. His head had the woozy, second-behind sensation that accompanies a fever. "I was completely out of my mind," he recalls. "I had been sick for two weeks and thought I finally had the strength to go to the clinic. I put a sock on my foot, which was hard to do, and just sat there for three hours. Then I just went back to bed."

An Aedes aegypti mosquito had pierced Biddle's skin and infected him with the virus that causes dengue fever, an ailment that's earned the ominous nickname of "break bone fever." Each year, upward of 100 million people are infected around the world, and about 25,000 — mostly in Latin American and Asian countries — die from the most severe form. The World Health Organization calls dengue a "fast emerging pandemic prone viral disease" whose rates have "increased 30-fold over the last 50 years." There's no approved vaccine and no treatment. Thankfully, though, dengue is exceedingly rare in the U.S.

"It's debilitating," Biddle concedes. "It's a tough disease, and I can see why [public health officials] are afraid of it."

No one at the table underestimates the severity of dengue or the potential threat it poses to tourism — an industry they all rely on directly or indirectly. And the more mosquitoes and the more tourists, the bigger the threat.

There are, according to some estimates, 40,000 mosquitoes for every person in the United States. In most of the U.S., mosquito season lasts four months. In South Florida, it's ten months, sometimes 12, depending on rainfall. Because most Florida counties have had mosquito control programs in place since the 1950s or '60s, modern-day Floridians take their relatively mosquito-free lifestyles for granted. It can be tough to appreciate the extent of mayhem once stirred by "our species most deleterious pest," as environmental historian Gordon Patterson puts it in his book The Mosquito Wars: A History of Mosquito Control in Florida.

In the late 19th Century, when Florida was referred to as "the Devil's property," swarms were so dense in some areas that it was impossible to breathe without inhaling mouthfuls of mosquitoes. Union soldiers struggled with the pests during the Civil War, bundling up in overcoats despite the sweltering heat to stave off bites. In August 1864, Acting Master Mate Van Ness of the USS Chambers ­­— a Union ship patrolling the coast of what's now Brevard County — committed suicide by jumping overboard to escape being eaten alive. A "mystery disease" broke out among the remaining crew and killed five. Patterson quips, "Confederate sympathizing mosquitoes were victorious."

Livestock also suffered. In September 1932, in Cape Sable, near the southern tip of the state, 80 cows, 67 hogs, 20 chickens, three horses, two dogs, and one mule were killed in a single night by a blitz of mosquitoes. As noted by Patterson, the animals died either from sheer blood loss, nervous exhaustion, or a toxin. Though mosquito attacks were excruciating and craze-inducing, the diseases they spread have always been more dangerous. Over the course of mankind's history, mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria and yellow fever, have combined to kill billions of people.

Dengue, though less lethal than malaria and yellow fever, has soared in the Caribbean in recent years. In 2011, the CDC issued a travel advisory for the Bahamas after 1,000 suspected cases were recorded in a one-month span. In Puerto Rico, more than 21,000 cases — representing a financial burden of $40 million — were reported in 2010, the most in the history of the island. But the last major outbreak of dengue in Florida occurred back in 1934, when nearly 1,500 of the 2,000 cases were concentrated in Broward and Miami-Dade. Noxious chemicals like DDT that were brewed in the "Better Living Through Chemistry" era played a vital role in suppressing the disease.

Only a few cases emerged in Florida over the following decades, mostly in people who had picked up the virus while abroad. But in 2009, a woman from New York who had traveled to Key West was diagnosed with it. This set off national alarms; the fact that she hadn't left the country meant the disease was acquired in the continental U.S. The CDC sent investigators to the Keys who worked with local health agencies and confirmed at least 27 locally acquired cases in 2009 and an additional 66 in 2010.

Dengue can't spread from person to person. For the disease to show up the way it did meant that someone already infected must have traveled to Key West and was bitten by an Aedes aegypti, which in turn became infected and traveled around biting other people. Those people now had the virus and spread it to other mosquitoes, which spread it to more people, including Biddle.

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