Threatwatch: Chikungunya virus hits the US and Europe

Friday, July 25, 2014
By Paul Martin

by Debora MacKenzie
NewScientist.com
23 July 2014

Chikungunya is on the move. Locally acquired cases of the mosquito-borne virus, native to central Africa, have been identified in the US for the first time, and virologists are warning it could spread to Europe. At the same time, the virus is rampaging across the Caribbean, which has seen a 24 per cent increase in cases in the last week alone.

The virus, which causes rash, fever and severe joint pain, has exploded in Central America and the Caribbean since its arrival in the western hemisphere last December. As of 18 July, the number of cases identified across the Caribbean and parts of the surrounding mainland this year is 442,000 – a 24 per cent rise on last week’s figure.

The Dominican Republic is especially hard hit, with more than 250,000 sick. So too are Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique, which have each identified between 50,000 and 63,000 cases. The virus is also spreading in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname on the mainland. The virus is rarely lethal, but 26 people have died in the epidemic so far. Many survivors have lasting pain.

Visitors to these countries risk spreading the virus to areas where the two species of mosquito that transmit it are found. That includes the US: one of the mosquito species is found in 14 states, while the other is present in 32.

To date, 234 cases of chikungunya are thought to have been “imported” into the US, but that figure might be ten times higher because many cases are missed or misdiagnosed, warned Harold Noel of the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance (INVS) in an editorial published last week.

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