Last updated on March 30, 2017
A new illness has hit the Caribbean Islands and is quickly making its way north. According to experts, chikungunya, the mosquito-borne virus, has been around since 1952, but never in this region. First identified in Tanzania, the virus has mostly remained within Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and along the Arabian Peninsula with only a few cases being reported in the United States from returning travelers.
Experts say US invasion inevitable as virus spreads north.
Health officials first discovered chikungunya in the Caribbean in 2013, when local islanders were becoming infected with the virus from local mosquito bites. In less than a year, the virus has spread to more than 17 different Caribbean countries, leaving experts to advise it’s only a matter of time before it hits the US, especially given the large number of Americans who vacation along the various islands each year.
Dr. Jorge Parada, medical director of the infection prevention program at Loyola University, Chicago, and medical spokesperson for the National Pest Management Association says, “The mosquitos that transmit this infection are pretty widespread around the world, and that’s why the infection has been able to spread across the tropical Pacific and now into the Caribbean and there’s absolutely no reason why this infection can’t spread to more of South America and the southern United States.”
These types of viruses are also spread by plants, animals and insects and since the crossover is considered inevitable, here’s what you need to know about chikungunya. This viral infection is transmitted to humans through infected mosquitoes, mostly the Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti species. These particular mosquitoes are widespread across the Americas and thrive mostly in large cities and other urban areas; they tend to bite during the day, rather than at night.
The infection occurs when a person is bitten by a mosquito that has fed on another infected person. Prada explains,“[If you] have the virus circulating in your bloodstream, the mosquito sucks your blood, acquires the virus, and if it feeds again, there’s always some level of regurgitation of the prior meal. They inoculate us with the virus, so we can then get infected.”
While the virus is not considered lethal, there are no therapies. Once infected it takes between three and seven days for symptoms to appear. An infected person will typically experience high fever and joint pain; however, the virus can also cause rash, muscle soreness, joint swelling and headaches and for the elderly, can be very debilitating.
Oddly enough, chikungunya is a Makonde word meaning ‘bent out of shape’ as it tends to cause people to contort in pain. Prada adds, “The key thing is it tends to give you a lot of joint pain. There’s a saying that, ‘It won’t kill you, but you may wish your dead.’”
To prevent infection, it’s important to avoid mosquito bites by wearing long clothes, using insect repellent and staying inside during the hot days. You can also help by removing all standing water around your home – these make perfect breeding grounds – and ensuring all doors and windows to your home are properly screened. An infected person can ‘wait it out’ at a local doctor’s office. Sometimes over-the-counter medicines can help alleviate symptoms.