Tracing and tracking the emergence, epidemiology and dispersal of dengue virus to Africa during the 20th century

11 Nov 2021

The four mosquito-borne dengue virus serotypes (DENV1–DENV4) cause a high burden of disease throughout the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. Nevertheless, their precise epidemiological history in Africa, including when and where they originated and were distributed during the 20th century, remains unclear stressing the need for One Health focused research. Accordingly, we conducted a time-scaled molecular epidemiological reconstruction using publicly available and newly sequenced dengue virus genomes of African origin representing all four serotypes to deduce the most likely temporal and spatial transmission routes of each DENV serotype from their ancestral regions to, within and from Africa.

Our analyses suggest that during the 20th century, serotypes DENV1–DENV3 were introduced to Africa from South East Asia on multiple occasions. The earliest evidence recorded indicates introduction of DENV2 during the early-1940s and of DENV1 during the mid-1940s to Western Africa from South East Asia. The analysis also implies an early introduction of DENV4 during the mid-1940s to Western Africa, alongside DENV1, probably originating in South East Asia. Establishment of DENV3 in Africa appears to have occurred later in the 1960s, apparently originating from South East Asia. However, with the re-establishment of DENV in the Americas, following the cessation of the PAHO mosquito control programme during the mid-20th century, evidence of introductions of DENV1 and DENV2 from the Americas to Western Africa was also observed. The data also identify intra-regional circulation of DENV, but also inter-regional dispersal of all four serotypes within Africa, which has led to a high degree of geographical overlap among serotypes. It is also noteworthy that DENV from both Eastern and Western Africa, have been introduced into Central Africa but there is no support for the converse relationship. For serotypes DENV1–DENV3, we observed probable exports from within established African DENV clusters (≥2 sequences) primarily to Eastern and Southern Asia.

Collectively, our findings support the view that all DENV serotypes, apart from DENV4, have been introduced on multiple occasions to Africa, primarily originating from South East Asia, and subsequently to neighbouring regions within Africa.