Chikungunya is not a term commonly recognized by the average American. The mosquito-borne virus was originally found in Tanzania in 1952, though it is suspected to have been circulating in the region for many centuries. Chikungunya is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, and has been predominately concentrated in countries in Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent until quite recently.
Within the past week, the virus has been diagnosed in patients from several states in the U.S., including Indiana, Florida and North Carolina. These cases appeared after a major outbreak in the Caribbean that has affected thousands in the past few months.
While chikungunya is rarely a fatal disease, it can cause intense pain, which sometimes lasts for months. The main symptoms are fever and joint pain, though it can be accompanied by nausea, headache and fatigue as well. The World Health Organization states, “the disease shares some clinical signs with dengue (fever), and can be misdiagnosed in areas where dengue is common.”
The mosquito-borne virus is most common in areas close to mosquito breeding sites. The New York Daily News says that cases of the virus will continue to rise in Haiti due to large amounts of standing water left in open containers, which are “used in many Haitian homes that lack running water.” The WHO says that the virus spreads by bites from infected female mosquitoes. Symptoms usually begin to show four to eight days after the bite.
CNN reports that 25 to 28 American travelers bring the virus back to the U.S. after traveling to high-risk areas abroad. The New York Daily News affirms that the latest cases in the U.S. were not from local mosquitoes, but were “carried by recent travelers to the Caribbean where the virus is raging.”
The outbreak in the Caribbean has been troubling internationally, as tourist destinations like St. Martin could act as a hub for this epidemic, says The New York Times.
The Oxford Journals recognize that though the disease does not typically have a high death toll, in developing nations, “the epidemics resulted in significant morbidity and taxed the health care and public health infrastructure.”
Reducing the outbreak of chikungunya presents a challenge to the global community. Rural villages in African and Caribbean countries do not have access to running water, which creates the need for standing water sources. The risk of attracting mosquitoes increases under these conditions, and therefore the risk of disease goes up as well.
There is currently no vaccine or cure for chikungunya. According to the WHO, treatment aims to alleviate symptoms, usually using anti-pyretics (fever reducers), optimal analgesics (painkillers) and fluids. Travelers to high-risk areas are told to be cautious and protect exposed skin with clothing and bug spray. However, very few recommendations have been made for those who live in the afflicted areas. Unfortunately, reducing the number of cases in such areas would require major overhaul of health care systems and vast improvement of living conditions. Hopefully, the future will bring a vaccine and the social change needed to reduce the spread of this epidemic.