What In The World Is Chikungunya?

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A mosquito on a blade of grass

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting a rise in U.S. cases of a painful new virus.

Chikungunya (which is pronounced chick-en-gun-ye) triggers a very painful but seldom fatal illness, and is already common in central and southern Africa, southern Asia and has recently spread to 17 countries in the Caribbean. Cases have also been reported in Italy and France.

As of June 17, 80 cases have been reported in 13 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, the CDC says. Puerto Rico has 23 locally-transmitted cases; all of the others are travel-associated, in people returning from the Caribbean or Asia. Health departments in Tennessee and Georgia have also reported cases.

“We do anticipate that there could be local transmission of the virus, particularly now as we are coming into summer when mosquitoes are active,” said Dr. Erin Staples, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. She said that few people in the United States have been exposed to chikungunya, “so no one is really immune.”

Chikungunya 101

How Is It Spread?

The virus is spread to people by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which pick up the virus by biting an infected person. Someone infected outside the United States who brings the virus back will likely, at some point, be bitten by a mosquito and then the virus will be passed on to the next person that mosquito bites.

What Are The Symptoms?

The chikungunya virus causes high fevers, joint pain and swelling, headaches and a rash – people often first associate the symptoms as being flu-like. For some people, the sometimes-debilitating pain can last even after other symptoms disappear. Doctors say that a high percentage of those infected become sick – over 90% of those bitten will develop symptoms.

Who’s Most At Risk?

Those most at risk of a severe infection include newborns, adults 65 and older, and people with chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

How Is It Treated?

As of yet, there are no special treatments available. Typically, fever-reducing medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen are given to help alleviate pain.

How To Lower Your Risks

Travelers to areas where the virus is circulating should take precautions against mosquito bites. The mosquitoes carrying the virus can bite day or night, indoors or out. To help limit your infection risks, the CDC advises you to:

  • Cover up exposed skin by wearing long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and hats
  • Use insect repellent that contains as an active ingredient DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, PMD, or IR3535
  • Consider treating clothing and gear such as boots and tents with the repellent permethrin
  • Stay and sleep in rooms with screens or air conditioning
  • Use bed nets if you are sleeping outdoors

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