Silvia Izquierdo, Associated Press
A woman holds a child with symptoms of dengue fever as they wait for help at a Brazilian Air Force field hospital on Monday.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazilian troops joined the fight against dengue fever Monday, setting up three field hospitals to combat an epidemic that has surged to 1.4 new cases each minute.

State health officials say the field hospitals should help ease the shortage of hospital beds and take some of the pressure off emergency rooms packed with victims of the mosquito-borne disease.

"We have to enter into combat like we're fighting a war, to minimize the suffering of the population," said field hospital commander Maj. Roberto Tury.

Rio de Janeiro state, home to 16 million people, has seen more than 45,000 cases of dengue since January, compared to 25,107 cases in all of 2007, government officials say.

Smaller outbreaks of the disease in Ceara, Para and Sao Paulo states have brought the number of cases to more than 70,000 nationally so far this year.

Dengue causes high fevers, severe headaches and joint pains but is not usually fatal. This year, however, 54 people have died in the state, while more than 60 reported deaths, including that of three children over the weekend, are still under investigation.

More than half the fatalities have been children under 13 years of age, state health authorities said. Statistics on nationwide deaths were not available.

Brazil had more than half of the 900,782 cases of dengue in the Americas last year, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Of the hemisphere's 317 deaths, 158 came in Brazil, including 31 in Rio state.

Treating victims has been complicated by a shortage of pediatricians. On Monday, Rio de Janeiro Health Secretary Sergio Cortes requested 154 pediatricians from other states to help out.