Tropical Virus Alert: Chikungunya in Florida and the Caribbean

Chikungunya, a debilitating, potentially lethal, mosquito-borne virus that has been ravaging the Caribbean over the past year, has crossed into South Florida, forcing public health departments in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties to issue preventive action warnings. This is the first known incidence of the virus on the North American mainland.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has reported more than 55,000 suspected and confirmed cases of the virus in 15 Caribbean countries so far this year, but the recent reports out of Florida show just how tenacious the virus can be. First identified in Africa in 1953, chikungunya quickly spread to Asia, countries bordering the Indian Ocean, and the Western Pacific, and it made landfall on the Caribbean country of St. Martin in December of 2013. From that point, there has been no stopping it. It has even shown up in Northern Italy.

TIF first reported on the arrival of chikungunya to the Caribbean on December 19, 2013.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Chikungunya virus is transmitted to people through mosquito bites. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.
  • Chikungunya virus is most often spread to people by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes.

These are the same species of mosquito that transmit the dengue virus (also known by its victims as breakbone fever), which can result in excruciating pain in the joints, intense fever, headaches, and an unexplained rash. The symptoms tend to show up three to seven days after infection and usually last a week, but can linger for months.

There is no cure for the chikungunya virus and no vaccine, so health authorities emphasize the need for prevention, urging people to follow what they call the “drain and cover” method: drain water from garbage cans, flower pots, bird baths, swimming pool covers—any place where still water can gather. They also advise that people cover themselves well at times when mosquitos are active (wear socks, long pants, and sleeves, and use mosquito repellants with DEET, or other proven medications).

Related: Canada Raises “High Caution” Flags on Many Foreign Countries

Chikungunya’s rapid transmission into and throughout the Western Hemisphere is attributed to the growing travel patterns between Caribbean countries and North America. The four cases identified so far by Florida public health authorities were among recent travellers returning from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the island of Dominica in the eastern Caribbean. Hospitals in the Dominican Republic are reporting more than 100 new cases of chikungunya a day.

The CDC also urges travellers returning home from Caribbean countries or Florida to report unaccounted for symptoms such as fever, joint pain, or a rash to their doctors or to tropical health clinics, as the chikungunya virus may take from three to seven days to take effect.

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