Five Things to Know about Chikungunya

In recent months, a disease has crept across the Atlantic from Africa and Asia. Carried and transmitted by mosquitos, it has swept across the Caribbean and even into the United States of America within the course of a few dozen weeks. It’s not malaria- it’s a new kind of virus with a tongue twisting name: “Chikungunya” (chik-en-gun-ye), a disease native to East Africa that has the potential reach epidemic proportions in the Western Hemisphere. While Chikungunya isn’t likely to kill you, there are a few important facts you should know about this disease as it begins to have more and more of a presence in the Americas: 

Aedes aegypti, a mosquito that transmits Chikungunya Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Aedes aegypti, a mosquito that transmits the Chikungunya virus
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

1. Chikungunya means “that which bends up” in Mokonde, an east African language native to Tanzania and Mozambique, and describes the acute joint pains that victims suffer after contracting the disease. While most symptoms of the disease, just as a sudden fever, nausea, fatigue, and muscle pain are gone within three to four days, joint pains can last months or even years. While painful, however, Chikungunya is rarely fatal, posing a real danger only to people already physically weak, such as newborn infants or the extremely elderly or infirm. 

2. Chikungunya was first discovered in an outbreak in Tanzania in 1952, and is believed to have originated in apes and monkeys before being transferred to humans via mosquitoes. Until 2013, Chikungunya was found only in Africa, Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent, with scattered cases popping up in southern Europe. However, in December of 2013, the island of St. Martin became the first place in the Americas to have a natural outbreak of the disease. 

3. Since December, 23 islands in the Caribbean have reported local transmissions of Chikungunya- that is, cases of the disease that originated within the country, rather than having being contracted while abroad. These include St. Martin, Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic. 

4. In the United States of America, over 400 people have been reported to have contracted Chikungunya (as of August 5, 2014)and brought the virus to 31 states. While such isolated cases are unlikely to start local epidemics in the states, on July 17 the CDC reported its first local transmission of Chikungunya in a man in Florida, who had never left the United States. 

5. Chikungunya is carried by the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, both of which carry dengue fever, a disease that shares many similarities with Chikungunya. There is no vaccine for Chikungunya, so treatment is dependent on relieving symptoms. The CDC recommends reducing contact with mosquitoes while traveling abroad in affected countries, such as using insect repellent, sleeping in rooms with screens and air conditioners, and covering skin with light long sleeve shirts and pants.

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