A mosquito-borne virus called chikungunya that’s been spreading throughout the Caribbean islands over the past year has now made its way to U.S. soil. The first locally transmitted cases of the virus — which means that American residents caught it from each other, rather than bringing it back from a foreign country — were reported in Florida at the end of last week.
The virus, pronounced chik-en-gun-ye, is somewhat comparable to dengue fever. It’s not typically fatal, but it can be painful. Chikungunya causes fevers, headaches, and joint swelling, and there’s no treatment for it aside from temporary pain relief. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms can be “severe and disabling,” and sometimes persist for months.
There’s currently a chikungunya epidemic going on in Puerto Rico. But the two new cases in Florida represent the first time that the virus has spread from local mosquitoes in the continental United States. In both cases, an uninfected mosquito in Florida bit a person who got infected with the virus after visiting the Caribbean, and then transmitted the illness further to other people who hadn’t recently traveled.
In a press release announcing the confirmation of the first locally acquired case of the disease, CDC officials noted they’re not exactly sure what course chikungunya will take in the United States. Fortunately, health experts aren’t expecting widespread outbreaks of the disease, but they do warn that local transmissions could increase if foreign travelers continue to bring back the virus from abroad. “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., the chief of CDC’s Arboviral Diseases Branch, said in a statement.
There have been a recent uptick in chikungunya cases in general. Between 2006 to 2013, each year had an average of 28 cases involving travelers bringing the virus back to the U.S. But by the middle of this month, the CDC had already counted 243 of those cases. The rise of chikungunya could be driven in part by climate change, which is increasing temperatures and moisture levels in the U.S. and ultimately facilitating a better environment for the type of mosquitoes that carry the virus.
Ashley Manning, a Georgia resident who recently contracted the virus while she was traveling, described the symptoms as “fiercely unpleasant” in an interview with ABC affiliate WFTV in Atlanta. “I just thought I wasn’t going to be able to walk, like I was going to constantly going to have these pains,” Manning, whose fever reached 103 degrees, said.
Here at home, Americans can take a few common-sense precautions to try to mitigate their risk of being bitten by a mosquito carrying chikungunya — like draining standing water, covering their skin with either clothing or bug repellent, and making sure they’re using screens in their windows.