By Hyun Namkoong
Chikungunya virus is as foreign as it sounds, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already confirmed seven cases of this unwelcome guest in North Carolina.
Chikungunya outbreaks have been largely confined to Africa, Asia and Europe. But in 2013, the virus made its way over to the Americas, first showing up in the Caribbean and then latching onto unwitting American tourists least expecting a case of chikungunya on their holiday. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the Caribbean outbreak is now at about 355,000 suspected and confirmed cases centered primarily in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as a handful of cases each in Trinidad and Puerto Rico.
The chikungunya virus is transmitted through infected mosquitoes. The virus has no known vaccine or cure, and although it isn’t lethal it can be painful. Common symptoms include fever and joint pain. Most people feel better within a week, but for some the joint pain can last months, even years.
Hopping on a plane is easier now than ever before, and public-health officials are cautioning travelers to prepare for more than an exchange of culture when they cross borders. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is advising North Carolinians who visit tropical islands or other nations where the virus is known to exist to see a doctor if they start feeling any symptoms of chikungunya within two weeks of returning home.
According to the Trinidad Express newspaper, James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, said the outbreak appears to be spreading to one new country per week.
According to DHHS, “There is no evidence that any mosquitoes in North Carolina carry the chikungunya virus,” and confirmed cases have been people who traveled to the Caribbean or other infected areas.
But it is possible for the virus to get transmitted into local mosquitoes, which could result in an outbreak of chikungunya across the state. The Aedes albopictus, better known as the Asian tiger mosquito, is commonly found in North Carolina and could transmit the virus to humans.
Though it may be unlikely that the state will be swarmed by chikungunya-infected mosquitoes, the old public-health adage “better safe than sorry” is why DHHS is advising residents to take preventative measures against chikungunya by making breeding conditions less favorable for mosquitoes.
These measures include throwing out standing water, keeping gutters clean and using screened doors and windows. People are also advised to avoid being outdoors in the morning and early evening when the Aedes mosquito is most aggressive.
UPDATE: On July 17, CDC officials announced the first confirmed case of chikungunya acquired without travel to the Caribbean. A man in Florida was diagnosed with the disease who had not recently traveled outside the country.
“CDC officials believe chikungunya will behave like dengue virus in the U.S., where imported cases have resulted in sporadic local transmission but have not caused widespread outbreaks,” said an agency press release.
“None of the more than 200 imported chikungunya cases between 2006 and 2013 have triggered a local outbreak. However, more chikungunya-infected travelers coming into the U.S. increases the likelihood that local chikungunya transmission will occur.”