Chikungunya may sound like a spicy dish from the Caribbean but it is certainly not. It is actually another of the many mosquito-borne diseases from which over 1 million people worldwide perish each year. Unfortunately, the only thing hot about this disease is that it is spreading like wildfire in the Caribbean and has now been identified in the US.
This mosquito-borne disease was first observed in Africa. The name Chikungunya in Swahili means, “to walk bent over”. The disease is rarely fatal. However, it can cripple its victims to the point that they can only “walk bent over”.
Chikungunya was first detected in the Western Hemisphere on the Caribbean Island of Saint Martin in December 2012. The Pan American Health Organization believes there have been over 55,000 cases in the Caribbean since that time. There have been 13 confirmed deaths since December 2012. The CDC issued its first travel advisory in December 2013 to US citizens traveling anywhere in the Caribbean. When considering these numbers, we need to realize the entire island of Saint Martins has a population of only 75,000. None of the islands in the Caribbean, where that disease has broken out, are considered densely populated.
There is no vaccine for Chikungunya. The main symptoms of the disease include severe joint pain, muscle pain, fever and rash. The rash may appear anywhere on the body, including the soles of feet and the palms of hands. Since an infected mosquito can transmit the disease from person to person, anyone who recently returned from the Caribbean, or who has been in contact with someone who recently returned, should be aware of these symptoms.
On May 16th, the Florida Department of Health announced three imported cases of Chikungunya. All three US citizens returned home after a recent trip to the Caribbean. Although humans can transmit the disease to uninfected mosquitoes, US Health officials have not reported any local transmission of Chikungunya in the US by a mosquito. The US is home to two mosquito species that transmit Chikungunya worldwide. Officials believe it is only a matter of time before we begin to see locally transmitted infections here in the US.
West Nile disease and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) are transmitted to local mosquitoes through birds who were previously infected by other mosquitoes. Once infected the mosquitoes will then infect their target hosts with these disease, e.g. people and horses. Unlike these mosquito-borne diseases, Chikungunya is transmitted from person-to-person through mosquitoes in a manner similar to Dengue fever. Humans are vectors for Chikungunya like birds are for West Nile. Chikungunya is often thought of as an urban or city mosquito-borne illness. It is a disease more commonly contracted by people living close together, unlike West Nile and EEE.
With Chikungunya, it doesn’t matter where you live in the US. A neighbor or someone close to you traveling to the Caribbean, Asia or Africa can bring this disease home to your doorstep. Reducing your and your family’s chance of being bitten by a mosquito is the best way to prevent mosquito-borne diseases.