Beachgoers aren’t the only thing coming and going in the Caribbean these days. A mosquito-borne virus typically found in Asia and Africa has made its way to a handful of islands in the region, and U.S. health officials are concerned that it could spread even farther in the Western hemisphere. In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning for U.S. travelers to St. Martin and Martinique about the risk for chikungunya, a viral disease that causes extreme muscle and joint pain, fever, fatigue and a rash.
|The yellow fever mosquito is one of the
mosquitos that can transmit
chikungunya, a painful virus.
On Dec. 22, the World Health Organization reported 27 confirmed cases of chikungunya in St. Martin and two cases in Martinique. On Dec. 28, the European Centre for Disease Control reported the number of cases had jumped to 66 on the French portion of St. Martin. Health officials are also investigating hundreds of suspected cases on St. Martin, Martinique and the island of St. Barthelemy. This is the first-ever outbreak of chikungunya in the Americas.
Travelers have actually brought chikungunya to the U.S. in recent years, but so far the virus hasn’t spread. But Rosmarie Kelly, Ph.D., public health entomologist at the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), said the CDC may be concerned because the virus’ patterns are similar to those of another viral newcomer in the U.S.: West Nile Virus.
“Chikungunya is doing similar things to what West Nile did when it came to the U.S. It’s becoming more virulent and it’s showing up in places where it’s never been before,” Kelly said.
Chikungunya is not typically deadly and spreads through the bites of two types of mosquito – the yellow fever mosquito, also called Aedes aegypti, and the Asian tiger mosquito, otherwise known as Aedes albopictus. Kelly said whether the virus could begin spreading in Georgia depends on the type of mosquito that’s doing the spreading. The yellow fever mosquito was once common in Georgia, but now is almost undetectable. Asian tiger mosquitos, on the other hand, are easy to find.
“Aedes albopictus is found in every single county in Georgia. It’s our number one pest species in urban areas,” Kelly said.
The CDC estimates that 9 million people travel from the U.S. to the Caribbean each year, and it’s possible that one of those travelers could become infected and bring the virus to Georgia. But Kelly said she’s not expecting a large number of cases to suddenly appear in the state.
“You have to have enough mosquitos of the right type in the right place to transmit the virus to a host,” she said. “It’s possible, but it’s not very likely.”
Any Georgians who are traveling to and from St. Martin or Martinique should look for travel updates from CDC and take precautions to protect themselves from chikungunya. Use mosquito repellants that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or PMD. If you are using sunscreen, apply the repellant after you apply the sunscreen. Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms, and protect exposed skin by wearing long sleeves, pants and hats. If you feel sick and think you may have chikungunya, contact a health care professional.
To learn more about chikungunya and see the CDC’s travel updates, visit the Traveler’s Health section of CDC’s website.