Mosquito-Borne Chikungunya Virus Arrives In Americas

The virus can cause debilitating joint pain that can last for weeks, and sometimes years.

A potentially debilitating African virus has now officially made its way to the Americas, and is being spread between people by mosquitoes in the Caribbean. From early December to mid-January, the chikungunya virus had infected at least 200 people, epidemiologists say. But in the last week alone, another 498 confirmed cases have been reported, for a total of around 700. Not exactly happy Friday news.

The virus is not usually fatal, though, with 1 death in every 1,000 cases, and then usually only in the elderly or immune-compromised. But you still don’t want to get it, as it’s known for debilitating symptoms, especially joint pain, that can last for weeks, and, rarely, for months to years, according to the World Health Organization. It often causes fever and other symptoms including headache, muscle pain, nausea, fatigue and rash. And there is no vaccine or medicine to treat it.

You can take steps to avoid it, though: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing insect repellant to avoid being bitten if you travel to one of the islands where it has been reported so far, including Saint Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Barthelemy, and the British Virgin Islands. But it has already spread since being detected on Saint Martin last month, and officials worry it could make its way throughout the Caribbean, and to the United States.

It is known for explosive outbreaks and has reached “epidemic proportions,” causing “considerable morbidity and suffering,” according to WHO. It is now found in more than 40 countries, after originating in Tanzania in the early 1950s. The name means derives from a word in the Kimakonde language which means “to become contorted” and describes the stooped appearance of sufferers with joint pain, WHO noted. Nearly 2 million cases have been reported in South Asia since 2005.

It’s only the latest arbovirus (or arthropod-spread pathogen) to arrive in the Americas, and illustrates that we are all vulnerable to the spread of these diseases, thanks in part to globalization. Other famous examples include the West Nile virus and dengue fever. Both dengue and the chikungunya virus are spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and symptoms of both viruses appear similar, making detection of chikungunya more difficult.

The virus has been blamed for one “indirect” death in St. Martin.