The disease is caused by the yellow fever virus and is spread by the bite of an infected female mosquito. It infects only humans, other primates, and several species of mosquitoes. In cities, it is spread primarily by Aedes aegypti, a type of mosquito found throughout the tropics and subtropics. The virus is an RNA virus of the genus Flavivirus. The disease may be difficult to tell apart from other illnesses, especially in the early stages. To confirm a suspected case, blood sample testing with polymerase chain reaction is required.
A safe and effective vaccine against yellow fever exists, and some countries require vaccinations for travelers. Other efforts to prevent infection include reducing the population of the transmitting mosquito. In areas where yellow fever is common and vaccination is uncommon, early diagnosis of cases and immunization of large parts of the population are important to prevent outbreaks. Once infected, management is symptomatic with no specific measures effective against the virus. Death occurs in up to half of those who get severe disease.
In 2013, yellow fever resulted in about 127,000 severe infections and 45,000 deaths, with nearly 90% of these occurring in African nations. Nearly a billion people live in an area of the world where the disease is common. It is common in tropical areas of the continents of South America and Africa, but not in Asia. Since the 1980s, the number of cases of yellow fever has been increasing. This is believed to be due to fewer people being immune, more people living in cities, people moving frequently, and changing climate increasing the habitat for mosquitoes. The disease originated in Africa, from where it spread to South America through the slave trade in the 17th century. Since the 17th century, several major outbreaks of the disease have occurred in the Americas, Africa, and Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, yellow fever was seen as one of the most dangerous infectious diseases. In 1927 yellow fever virus became the first human virus to be isolated.
Yellow fever begins after an incubation period of three to six days. Most cases only cause a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. In these cases, the infection lasts only three to four days.
In 15% of cases, however, people enter a second, toxic phase of the disease with recurring fever, this time accompanied by jaundice due to liver damage, as well as abdominal pain. Bleeding in the mouth, the eyes, and the gastrointestinal tract cause vomit containing blood, hence the Spanish name for yellow fever, vómito negro ("black vomit"). There may also be kidney failure, hiccups, and delirium.