Once thought of as a "traveler's disease," chikungunya is for the first time spreading within the United States as native mosquitoes feed on those infected and then pass the untreatable, debilitating virus to their neighbors.
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What is chikungunya?
The chikungunya virus was first identified in Tanzania in 1952 and has since swept through southern and eastern Africa, according to the World Health Organization. The name "chikungunya" derives from the Kimakonde word for "to become contorted," which refers to the fever and intense muscle and joint pain that the virus inflicts on its victims for weeks and sometimes years.
Although the virus is rarely fatal, individuals who contract the virus "probably wish they would die" because it is so painful, says Robert Novak, a global health professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Up until last week, the virus had only been detected in people who had traveled to Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Now, it is present in at least two Florida residents who contracted the virus in the United States, CDC says.
It's here: CDC says painful 'chikungunya' virus has arrived in the U.S.
It's here, now what?
"This is not good news," says Mike Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. He added "What's disturbing is we know we have vector-competent mosquitoes who are able to feed off someone who has a virus circulating in their bloodstream and to transmit it to people who have not yet traveled…This is not a trivial illness."
According to the Pan American Health Organization, a total of 436,586 suspected and 5,724 laboratory-confirmed chikungunya cases were reported in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and the United States through July 18.
In just six months, 'chikungunya' virus infected more than 100K
Although most U.S. cases have been in Florida, it is spreading rapidly. In just the last month, health departments in North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, and New York have reported confirmed cases of residents with the virus. Even Joel Peralta—a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays— may have the virus, forcing him to the disabled list. And if a mosquito can bite any of these infected people, it can end up infecting more, experts say.
Unlike the West Nile virus, which is most often transmitted from birds to mosquitoes, chikungunya is transmitted from man to mosquito and back to man—a more efficient process than the West Nile virus.
"No one wants to be a fearmonger. No one is saying, 'We're all going to die.' But on the other hand, it does take public awareness and public responsibility to protect themselves," says University of Florida entomologist Walter Tabachnick, adding, "We've been very frustrated by the inability to get this message out to the public and nothing seems to take."
Tabachnick, who says the media has downplayed the danger of the virus, advises U.S. residents to clean up their homes and yards to prevent mosquitoes from creating breeding grounds nearby.
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"The public outcry should be to demand your neighbors to clean up," says Tabachnick, adding "All it takes is one property owner who doesn't care, and he could be rearing enough mosquitoes to endanger the entire neighborhood."
Mosquitoes that carry the virus, the Aedes aegypti and the Aedes albopictus, prefer to breed in man-made containers, such as birdbaths, soda cans, garbage cans, and rain barrels, Tabachnick says. Some may also breed in puddles or other naturally occurring trapped water sites. Tabachnick recommends dumping one's bird bath twice a week, clean up trash around one's yard, and monitor other sources.
When it comes to preventing bites, always apply insect repellant over sunscreen, he adds.
"You're going to feel lousy. With Chikungunya, you're going to ache. You do not want to get this disease," he says (Marder, PBS News Hour, 7/23, Snyder, CBS Sports, 7/22; Urquhart, Slate, 7/22).
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