Chikungunya Virus May Be Headed for U.S.
So far, cases of the painful illness have been imported, but that may not last for long, experts say
By Steven Reinberg
FRIDAY, June 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Health officials are reporting a rise in U.S. cases of the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus, though they were quick to note that all of these infections have so far originated outside the United States.
"Thankfully, we have not seen any cases in the United States yet where the person got the disease here," said Dr. Erin Staples, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
However, the virus is now widespread in the Caribbean and it's likely only a matter of time before it is found in mosquitoes in the United States, possibly as early as this summer, according to the CDC.
Chikungunya -- which triggers a very painful but seldom fatal illness -- is already common in central and southern Africa, southern Asia and has recently spread to 17 countries in the Caribbean, the CDC noted. Cases have also been reported in Italy and France.
The virus has been reported as close to the U.S. mainland as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Staples noted. "So there is transmission of the virus between people and mosquitoes going on right now in both those locations," she said.
And, people traveling to those locales are definitely bringing the virus home.
"As of this week, we have seen a fair number of travel-related cases," said Staples. As of June 17, there have been 57 cases of travel-related chikungunya reported to the CDC this year. But, doctors don't have to notify the CDC of suspected chikungunya infections, so that number may be underestimated.
"We do anticipate that there could be local transmission of the virus, particularly now as we are coming into summer when mosquitoes are active," said Staples. She said that few people in the United States have been exposed to chikungunya, "so no one is really immune. We anticipate that there could be some local transmission of the virus, so we could have small outbreaks."
Chikungunya (pronounced chick-en-gun-ye) virus causes high fevers, joint pain and swelling, headaches and a rash. For some people, the pain can last even after other symptoms disappear, Staples said. Chikungunya can be fatal, though that's quite rare, she added.
The pain from the virus can be debilitating. Pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Halverson was infected with chikungunya during a trip to Haiti where she was providing charitable care in a local hospital, she reported to the Minnesota Star Tribune.
She said she was immobilized by the pain and bedridden for a week. "I've broken a bone. I've had other medical issues. I don't think I've ever been in so much pain," Halverson told the newspaper.