Health Officials Monitoring Spread Of Rare Mosquito Borne Virus Chikungunya

State and local health officials are monitoring a mosquito borne virus known as chikungunya that has sickened 57 people in mostly southern states but has yet to make it to Texas.

In the past six months, more than 165,000 cases of the viral infection are suspected in 19 Caribbean and South American territories, according to a report published by the Pan American Health Organization. It now appears to be coming to America via travelers who are infected abroad and return stateside while the virus is in an incubation period.

Two species of mosquito can carry the virus, which they acquire by biting someone who’s been exposed to it. It can then be transmitted to other humans it bites, said Dr. Ed Dominguez, an infectious disease specialist with Methodist Dallas.

“The only way to transmit to another person is through mosquitos that are able to bite them and then infect someone else in the vicinity,” he said. “The CDC has not called it endemic, it’s still a traveler’s disease.”

American cases have been reported in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Symptoms appear between four and seven days. They’re marked by a high fever, severe joint pain and swelling, rash, headache, muscle soreness, nausea, and fatigue. It’s rarely fatal but symptoms can last months after the virus subsides, Dominguez said.

Chikungunya— that’s pronounced chik-un-GUNH-ya—was first identified in Tanzania in 1952. It’s swept across the world since then, spreading to Asia and Africa and South America. Its name means “to become contorted,” a reference to the muscle and joint pain that lingers in its victims.

Its spread is compared to that of the West Nile Virus, which hit New York in 1999 and fanned across America over the next five years. But unlike West Nile, which is carried by mosquitoes that strike at dawn and dusk, chikungunya is carried by species that prey during the day.

Dallas County Health and Human Services is aware of the spread, although no Texas cases have been reported. To combat it, spokeswoman Erikka Neroes said the department simply broadened the advice it gives residents to avoid West Nile to 24 hours rather than just dawn and dusk: Wear long sleeve shirts and pants, cover yourself in DEET, and drain all standing water, which can attract mosquitoes.

“We’re just staying on top of it and making sure we keep a close eye on notifications that come from the CDC,” Neroes said. “When a human case has been identified, then we will ramp up our efforts.”

Dominguez says there’s not an immediate way to test a patient for chikungunya. If a physician suspects a patient has the virus, they take a blood sample and send it to the county, which sends it to the state.

“There are recommendations of whom to contact and typically it’s through state health departments and works its way up through the CDC,” says Dominguez.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a threat. Dominguez says the primary venues for transmission are near big airports, travel destinations that serve as a midway point to more tropical locations. Dallas/Fort Worth, considering its major airport and its heavy diversity, is not immune to the risks. Miami has had cases, which is none too surprising considering the itinerary for Carribbean trips often includes a stop-off there.

“So it might be good to get a nonstop,” Dominguez said.

There is no cure, although recent medical literature reports vaccines being tested on animals, he added.

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