Chikungunya. Say it with me: Chi-kun-GUN-ya. Now just the ladies: Chi-kun. Then the guys: gun-ya.
Anyway, get used to hearing that curious combination of syllables because there’s growing concern that chikungunya— which, despite its fun-sounding name is a very serious disease in Latin America—could become an increasing health concern in the United States in the months and years to come.
While all eyes are on the Ebola outbreak of West Africa, the U.S. is facing a lesser-known but equally viral outbreak of a different kind.
“The arrival of chikungunya virus, first in the tropical Americas and now in the United States, underscores the risks posed by this and other exotic pathogens,” Roger Nasci, Ph.D., chief of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Arboviral Diseases Branch, said in a press statement. “It is not known what course chikungunya will take now in the United States.”
So what is chikungunya?
Chikungunya is a viral disease that is transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. The disease is not contagious and cannot be spread through human contact.
Similar to its tropical counterpart Dengue Fever, another mosquito-borne illness, the early symptoms of chikungunya are extremely high fever accompanied by severe joint pains, making it almost unbearable to walk. Other symptoms include a rash, muscle pain, headache, and fatigue.
Acute symptoms usually disappear within a week, though some patients have persistent joint pain that continues for months or years afterward. Death is unlikely, but can occur.
First diagnosed in Tasmania in the 1950s, the disease has since spread to Asia and Africa; an outbreak was reported in Europe in 2007.
Chikungunya was first diagnosed in the Americas last December, when the World Health Organization found a case in the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Since then, a total of 729,178 suspected and 9,537 confirmed chikungunya cases had been reported in the hemisphere (see map below), according to most recent numbers from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Some 113 people have died in the Caribbean after contracting the virus, according to PAHO’s most recent numbers.
What kind of threat does it pose to the United States?
The CDC lists a total of 1,052 confirmed cases within the United States this year, almost all of which were contracted when travelling abroad. Two hundred and fifty two travel-related cases have been reported in New York alone, and an additional 195 in Florida.
But not everyone was infected overseas. In Florida, there have been 11 locally contracted cases since July, making it the first state that has become a host of infected mosquitoes, according to the CDC. Two of the cases were detected last week.
The Florida Department of Health is monitoring the cases and issuing weekly updates about the status and spread of the disease.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have 278 and 25 locally contracted cases, respectively.
Could chikungunya spread beyond Florida?
Luckily for most of the country, the chill of Fall is already on its way, which means most gringo mosquitoes’ days are numbered. When the biting buggers are gone, so too is the immediate threat of chikungunya. So subtropical Florida remains an outlier. But the risk of spread in subsequent summer months is real, according to the CDC.
The two mosquitoes known to transmit the disease, the aedes albopictus and the aedes aegypti, both occupy large sections of the United States, from Florida and Texas all the way up to New Jersey.
Experts worry that the disease will mutate (as diseases tend to do), and be able to be carried by other species of mosquitoes. In that case, the disease could spread across even larger swaths of the country.
The situation abroad
The chikungunya situation has become severe in many parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, authorities suspect that more than 400,000 people have contracted the disease. It has become so widespread that the disease has even inspired several popular songs and music videos. Check out the “chikungunya dance” around 3:00 of this video, depicting how infected people are likely to walk, due to severe joint pain:
Earlier this week, an outbreak was confirmed in Colombia, leading to at least one death. Just yesterday, health officials in neighboring Venezuela confirmed that 13 recent deaths of unknown causes were “strictly associated with the recent outbreak of chikungunya virus currently on the rise nationwide.”
Peru, meanwhile, declared a 90-day health emergency starting yesterday.
I don’t want to do the chikungunya dance. How do I protect myself?
According to the CDC, there is “no specific treatment, vaccine, or preventive drug is available for chikungunya virus infection.”
The best way to prevent getting the virus is to “avoid mosquito bites, use air conditioning or screens when indoors, use insect repellents, and wear long sleeves and pants when outdoors.”