CHIKUNGUNYA, A HIGHLY INFECTIOUS DISEASE, MAY SOON ARRIVE IN THE U.S.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By Paul Martin

The mosquito-borne virus seems poised to join a handful of tropical diseases spreading across the southern United States

by Kat McGowan
Aljazeera.com
April 21, 2014

When Clare Rourke woke up one morning last March with a sore toe, she didn’t worry too much about it. She, her husband and their three daughters were living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, for a few months as part of a family year abroad. She and her husband had traveled widely — through India, the Middle East and South America — and had never been seriously ill. And they took necessary precautions, making sure everyone in the family received the recommended vaccinations.

But by the middle of that day, Rourke was sicker than she had ever been before. “I hurt in so many places — my feet, hand, wrists, ankles, elbows, knees,” she says. “I actually remember thinking that I just might die.” Her joints were so swollen, hot and painful that she couldn’t rest her elbows on the bed. Her temperature rose to 104 degrees. “I felt like something was attacking me and I was seriously losing the fight,” she says. That night, two of her daughters also became achy and feverish, and within a few days, all three had rashes on their hands, legs and arms. They were infected with chikungunya, a virus originally from Central Africa.

The virus, transmitted by mosquito bites, was rampaging through Yogyakarta — part of an outbreak that has stretched across the Indian Ocean, India and Southeast Asia since 2005. Now it is roaring through the Western Hemisphere. In December 2013, the first locally transmitted case of chikungunya in the Americas was identified on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. As of mid-April, more than 25,000 cases had been reported across the region, from the Dominican Republic to French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

Public health officials suspect the virus may already be in Puerto Rico, and they predict it will make the leap to the continental United States within months. “There’s nothing to stop this outbreak from continuing to spread,” says Lyle Petersen, director of the division of vector-borne diseases of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infections are likely to escalate this summer, when the Caribbean rainy season sets in and mosquito populations climb. Chikungunya seems poised to join a handful of tropical diseases — including dengue, Chagas’ disease and West Nile — that are spreading across the southern United States.

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