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The New Dangerous Tropical DiseaseHitting U.S. Shores:

Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus native to Asia and Africa, has made its first appearance on U.S. shores, with at least a dozen cases showing up in six or more states, including Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland and Minnesota.

Chikungunya mosquito transmission

Chikungunya is spread by mosquitoes -- primarily by varieties that live in tropical locations.

The virus, which was discovered in East Africa in the 1950s, has caused only 18 major epidemics and was thought to be largely benign; however, chikungunya appears to be making a comeback.

Most notably, in India and islands in the Indian Ocean over 1 million cases have been reported since 2004, and cases have been found in Europe and the United States since 2005.

"This virus has exploded," said French scientist Philippe Parola. "People must start to pay attention."

Chikungunya: An Arthritic Virus

Chikungunya is Swahili for "that which bends up," a phrase that aptly describes people infected with the virus. Chikungunya causes severe muscle and joint pain (which is why it's classified as an arthritic virus), along with:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue

Although chikungunya is rarely fatal, joint pain can last for weeks or months, and sometimes is incapacitating during this time.

"For us [in France], chikungunya fever was a few lines in a tropical medicine book," said Parola. "Now we see many cases and have noticed that after nine months half the patients are cured, but half still have severe arthritis, especially in their hands, wrists and ankles."

Currently, the only way to prevent chikungunya is to avoid being bitten by a mosquito. Those who become infected are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids.


Chikungunya is classified as an arthritic virus because it can cause debilitating joint and muscle pain.

How is Chikungunya Spread?

You can get chikungunya by being bitten by an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes pick up the virus from feeding on infected humans, and likely also from infected animals including monkeys. Although the virus is not generally spread from person-to-person, there is at least one report of a nurse becoming infected from a patient's blood sample.

Is an Epidemic Possible?

Chikungunya is transmitted primarily by mosquito species native to tropical areas, not the more common house mosquitoes found across the United States (which can transmit West Nile virus). Because of this, some say a chikungunya epidemic is unlikely in the United States.

"Chikungunya could enter someplace like Miami and maybe cause a localized epidemic, but it's unlikely to establish itself long term," said Dr. Grant L. Campbell, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But it could establish itself in a place like Honduras."

However, with international travel becoming increasingly popular (three-quarters of a billion people travel internationally every year, according to the World Tourism Organization), others say chikungunya could very well become a global disease.

"Is there a threat that an infectious patient can meet a competent vector [mosquito] in the U.S. and Europe? Why not?" said Parola. "We still don't know how it gets established, though. And we don't know the future if that happens. But is there a risk? Yes, there is a risk."

Others say that chikungunya is just the next inevitable disease to pop up throughout an increasingly small world.

"Are we going to keep seeing the next emerging disease? That's how we've set ourselves up," said Emily Zielinski-Gutierrez, a behavioral scientist at the National Center for Infectious Diseases. "We're close to everywhere else in the world, and we need to understand what's going on everywhere. People are moving; their food comes from all over. This is a small world."

Recommended Reading

The Rise of Contagious Disease & How to Minimize Your Risk of Contagious Disease Exposure

Bugs that Bite: Interesting Facts & Necessary Precautions on the Insects That Crave You


Newhouse News Service November 22, 2006

The New York Times October 10, 2006 (Free Registration Required)

CDC: Chikungunya Fever

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