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Story highlights

Dozens of dengue cases had been reported in Hawaii just a few weeks ago

Most of them are on the Big Island, though there's an imported case on Oahu

"This is an issue that we have to take ... as seriously" as Ebola, an expert says

(CNN) —  

President Barack Obama and his family are welcome visitors this holiday season to Hawaii.

Dengue fever, not so much.

Cases of the mosquito-borne disease continue to climb in the island state, whose health department reported 180 cases as of Christmas Eve.

That figure include 172 people who got dengue between September 11 and December 13 but are no longer infectious. Another eight people got the disease since then and may be infectious, according to the Hawaii health department.

It all adds up to a big spike from the 23 cases reported early last month, and there’s little indication there won’t be more in the weeks to come.

“This is an issue that we have to take seriously, as seriously as we did the Ebola epidemic in West Africa last year,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN affiliate KHON.

Two imported cases on Hawaii, Oahu

So far, the dengue cluster has been centered on the Big Island, or Hawaii. That’s relatively good news for folks like the Obamas, who are staying on Oahu.

In fact, the state heath department says, “The Big Island and the rest of Hawaii remain safe destinations for visitors and residents.”

Still, it’s understandable people are apprehensive, given that it’s not exactly easy to dodge mosquitoes in tropical locales like Hawaii.

How a mosquito infected millions, and not with malaria

That’s why state and federal authorities are monitoring all of the state’s islands for possible infections and conducting “mosquito site assessments and abatement as needed.” There have been two confirmed cases, one on Hawaii and the other on Oahu, of dengue being imported to the state.

Dengue infections “have grown dramatically around the world in recent decades,” with one estimate suggesting 390 million infections a year, reports the World Health Organization. The agency adds that about 3.9 billion people in 128 countries are at risk.

The United States, though, isn’t considered a place where a person is in high danger of coming down with dengue.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly all cases in the 48 continental states came from travelers or immigrants. The last reported such outbreak occurred in 2005 in south Texas, near the Mexican border.

CDC expert: Outbreak could last months

Richard Creagan, a state representative representing South Kona and once an emergency room doctor there, noted there have been dengue outbreaks in his area before. This includes one in 1993-1994 that authorities learned about after the fact.

“The good news is that that outbreak stopped without any intervention by the heath department or anybody,” Creagan told KHON

People of all ages – infants, children and adults – are susceptible to dengue fever, which causes a severe flu-like illness, but seldom leads to death. Those who get it often experience high fever and other symptoms like headache; eye, muscle or joint pains; nausea; swollen glands or rashes. Symptoms last about a week, according to the WHO.

5 myths about mosquito bites

Earlier this month, Dr. Lyle Petersen of the CDC said that he couldn’t predict how many cases of dengue Hawaii will have before this particular outbreak stops. With no “tools yet to minimize outbreaks rapidly,” the focus turns instead to controlling mosquitoes – something that, by its nature, takes time.

Residents and tourists alike are being urged to use repellant and, if they feel ill, to get medical attention sooner rather than later.

“This could go on for a number of months,” Petersen said, adding that if it does, it would be expected and “not a failure of the system.”

CNN’s Debra Goldschmidt contributed to this report.