Chikungunya — pronounced “chik-en-gun-ye” — is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause symptoms lasting for months. There’s no vaccine and no cure, and for the first time, the virus was reported on the continental Americas in 2013. Almost 5,000 cases of the disease have been reported in the Caribbean this year, and at least 80 American cases have been reported to the CDC.
Where does chikungunya come from and how is it treated? How concerned should you be about this mosquito-borne threat? While most people will recover from chikungunya, it can be deadly, and there’s no specialized treatment. Medications to reduce pain and fever, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, are currently the only medications recommended for the treatment of chikungunya, and they are easily obtained from a Canadian pharmacy.
Where Does Chikungunya Come From?
It’s believed that virus responsible for chikungunya comes from southern Tanzania, where it was first reported in 1952. The disease gets its name from an African word meaning “that which bends up,” because of the postural contortions sufferers experience. The contortions are a result of joint pain, a common symptom of the illness.
The virus spreads from person to person through mosquitoes, just like malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus. A mosquito bites an infected person and becomes infected itself. When it later bites other, uninfected people, it spreads the virus. The specific mosquito species implicated in the spread of chikungunya are Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti. Unlike some species of mosquitoes that only bite at night, these species can bite day or night, indoors or out.
Chikungunya Found in the Americas
In the past, outbreaks of chikungunya have occurred in Africa, Europe, Asia and among the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The virus spread to the Americas, specifically the Caribbean Islands, in late 2013. As of June 13, 2014, 19 South American and Caribbean countries have reported chikungunya outbreaks.
The islands of the Caribbean are currently undergoing a severe outbreak of the virus, with a suspected 160,000 cases in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. More than 4,570 cases have been confirmed in the Caribbean as of June 13, 2014; 14 people have died from the virus in the Caribbean region. Cuba has reported six confirmed cases of the disease.
American Tourists Bringing Chikungunya Home
CDC officials report that American tourists to the hard-hit Caribbean region are bringing back an unintended souvenir of their summer vacations — chikungunya. As of June 17, 2014, chikungunya has been found in 13 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Eighty American cases have been reported in total; in Puerto Rico, 23 of those cases are locally-transmitted. All the rest are associated with travel to the Caribbean or Asia.
There have not yet been any confirmed cases of chikungunya transmission between people in the continental United States, and this isn’t this the first time American travelers have been infected with the chikungunya virus before returning to the country. In the average year, 25 to 28 American travelerswill be infected with chikungunya before returning to the country. However, the Caribbean is a popular summer travel destination for Americans, and it is currently experiencing a severe outbreak of the disease. Officials are concerned that sharp increases in the number of infected American travelers returning home mean it’s only a matter of time before chikungunya becomes endemic in the continental United States. The subtropical climate of many parts of the United States is ideal for the spread of chikungunya.
How Bad Is Chikungunya?
The symptoms of chikungunya set in about four to seven days after the bite of an infected mosquito. Initial symptoms are flu-like and include muscle aches, joint pain and swelling, fever, rash and headache. About 90 percent of those bitten by an infected mosquito develop symptoms.
There is no vaccine or cure for chikungunya, and doctors usually administer prescription pain and fever medications. The good news is that most people infected with chikungunya survive. The majority of people who become infected with chikungunya recover completely in about a week. Some need to be hospitalized. A few people suffer joint pain symptoms for several months.
If you are traveling to areas where chikungunya is circulating, you can protect yourself by wearing long sleeves and long pants, if you can tolerate it. The CDC also recommends that you protect yourself from mosquito bites with an insect repellant that contains picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, DEET, PMD or IR3535. Treat clothing and camping gear with permethrin. If you can, sleep in air conditioned rooms or rooms with window screens, or use bed nets if sleeping outside.
The painful disease chikungunya, which is spread by mosquitoes, may soon spread to the United States as record numbers of American travelers come home carrying the disease. You can protect yourself from chikungunya using insect repellant and other anti-mosquito precautions. If you develop flu-like symptoms and joint pain after visiting the Caribbean, see a doctor.