Some unfortunate Americans stand a good chance next month of learning why chikungunya means “that which bends up” in Makonde, an indigenous language in southeast Africa where the rapidly spreading chikungunya virus originated.
“We think there is a good likelihood that the chikungunya virus will make an appearance on the Gulf Coast this summer, probably in May,” Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told VICE News.
Chikungunya is rarely fatal. But its victims may wish they had died as they curl up in agony from debilitating pain that resembles arthritis, a purplish-red bumpy rash like the measles, extreme headaches, and flu-like fevers.
Most of the symptoms recede in a week or two, say experts, but the body aches can persist for years.
“It’s like getting influenza. I’m not talking about the common cold. I’m talking about influenza which can lay you on your back, but with very severe pain and swelling in the joints,” said Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas, in an interview with VICE News.
In rural villages in poor countries like India the arrival of chikungunya spells catastrophe, explained Weaver.
“It keeps people from working and caring for their families. It’s economically a big deal,” he said. “So many people are incapacitated, society has trouble functioning.”
Oh, and one other thing: there’s no cure for the disease. Weaver and other scientists are working on a vaccine, but it will take years before it’s approved, he said.
Carried by the same mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever, the virus migrated in the 1950s from Africa throughout the Eastern Hemisphere.
It then appeared late last year in the Caribbean and around 26,000 people were suspected of being infected by mid-April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are about 4,000 confirmed cases of infection, according to the Pan American Health Organization, which is an arm of World Health Organization.
The rapid increase in the spread of the virus reflects how airlines are ferrying infected hosts from country to country, a similar pattern that has occurred with West Nile virus, SARS, and other public health scares, said experts.
Around 100 Americans returning from abroad have been diagnosed with the chikungunya, the CDC reported, but so far an outbreak hasn’t occurred in the United States. That’s about to change.
Hotez and Weaver believe the disease could remain concentrated in the American South for at least this summer. But Northerners shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief. The mosquitoes that carry chikungunya can range as far as New York City and San Francisco.
The best way to prevent infection is to keep away from mosquitoes, experts said. The CDC suggests making sure window screens are secure in the summer and using insect repellent outside.
Weaver admitted that those precautions were cold comfort. Worse, in Latin America many people, especially those without air conditioning, don’t use screens.
And most doctors in the region haven’t been trained to recognize chikungunya when they see it, either. So Americans returning south from vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico might create a pipeline to funnel the disease to the US in the near future.
“This is certainly a big moment in the history of this virus,” Weaver said. “We’re not very well prepared to deal with this virus despite the fact that we’ve feared for many years it would come to the Americas.”
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