The winter tourism season in the Caribbean has been dampened by increasing reports of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness typically found in Africa and Asia. According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 200 cases have been confirmed throughout the French Caribbean islands as well as in the British Virgin Islands.
Medical officials in the Caribbean indicate the confirmed cases were not exposed to travel, which indicates the virus is already in the mosquito population of the islands.
The first reported cases appeared in December of 2013 when two individuals who had not traveled recently confirmed the illness’s presence on St. Martin island.
Since then confirmed cases of chikungunya have appeared in Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Barthelemy, Dutch St. Maarten, St. Martin, and Jost Van Dyke island.
“Further spread to other Caribbean islands and to the surrounding mainland areas is possible in the coming months and years,” said CDC epidemiologist Erin Staples said in a Tuesday email to the Associated Press. “Infected travelers could then cause local transmission of the virus in the United States if mosquitoes bite infected people and then bite other people.”
Approximately nine million people visit the Caribbean annually, according to Staples, and while chikungunya is not as deadly as other mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue fever, it can still cause debilitating illness and occasionally death.
More about chikungunya
The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates the virus linked to chikungunya typically causes fever and severe joint pain, muscle pain, headache, nausea, fatigue and rash.
It is commonly misdiagnosed as dengue fever in areas where both diseases co-exist, and there is currently no cure for the disease.
Treatment involves management of symptoms, and prevention consists of standard mosquito control precautions. Individuals in endemic areas are encouraged to rid their properties of any standing, stagnant water where mosquitoes like to breed.
“Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne viral disease first described during an outbreak in southern Tanzania in 1952. It is an alphavirus of the family Togaviridae,” states WHO.
“The name ‘chikungunya’ derives from word in the Kimakonde language, meaning “to become contorted” and describes the stooped appearance of sufferers with joint pain.”
Most individuals with chikungunya have a full recovery; however, some cases become persistent, lasting months or even years.
Complications associated with chronic chikungunya include eye, neurological and heart complications as well as gastrointestinal complaints.
While rare, this mosquito-borne illness can contribute to the cause of death in older people.
Chikungunya prevention and control
“The proximity of mosquito vector breeding sites to human habitation is a significant risk factor for chikungunya as well as for other diseases that these species transmit.
Prevention and control relies heavily on reducing the number of natural and artificial water-filled container habitats that support breeding of the mosquitoes.
This requires mobilization of affected communities,” indicates WHO. “During outbreaks, insecticides may be sprayed to kill flying mosquitoes, applied to surfaces in and around containers where the mosquitoes land, and used to treat water in containers to kill the immature larvae.”
Individuals in high-risk areas are also encouraged to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, use repellents that contain DEET (N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide), IR3535 (3-[N-acetyl-N-butyl]-aminopropionic acid ethyl ester) or icaridin (1-piperidinecarboxylic acid, 2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-methylpropylester).
Anyone who sleeps during the daytime, particularly young children, or sick or older people, insecticide treated mosquito nets are highly recommended. Mosquito coils or other insecticide vaporizers may also reduce indoor biting.
Like many other mosquito-born illnesses, chikungunya is spread by insects that live outside but often come indoors to feed.