The chikungunya virus has been identified in the U.S. – and more specifically, in Houston – which has medical professionals here on alert said Dr. Kristy Murray, director of Texas Children’s Laboratory of Vector-borne and Zoonotic Diseases.
“Considering the number of travelers coming from the Caribbean by plane and by sea, as well as the vast mosquito populations that are more than capable of transmitting chikungunya, we have high concerns that the disease could take hold and begin its spread here in the United States, particularly in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and New York,” Murray said.
Chikungunya – pronounced like “chicken goonyah” – is a crippling virus that is spread by mosquitoes. The virus has no known treatment and can cause fevers, headaches and painfully debilitating joint pain that lasts for months to years. The word “chikungunya” is African (Makonde) in origin and translates to “that which bends up.” People infected with this virus are literally “bent up” from the extreme joint pain they experience, Murray said in a recent blog post she wrote about the virus.
In early December of 2013, chikungunya was found to be circulating in the Caribbean, the first evidence that the virus made the massive jump to the Western Hemisphere. Now, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 countries are reporting local transmission, with more than 135,000 suspected or confirmed cases.
Several imported cases have already been reported in the US. The first case in Texas was reported on July 7, 2014, and according to information from the Texas Department of State Health Services, as of last week, 10 confirmed cases have been reported across the state. In each of the cases so far, the patients had contracted the virus outside Texas, while traveling to overseas regions where the virus is more common.
So far, there is no evidence of transmission from the mosquito populations here in the Houston area. However just last week, health officials in Harris County say a mosquito tested positive for the chikungunya virus. It is the first chikungunya-positive mosquito detected in the state of Texas. Health officials have not determined whether the mosquito carrying chikungunya in Harris County obtained the virus from an infected person already in Texas, or if it traveled to the United States trapped in large cargo.
“We need to be proactive in our approach to this new disease threat, and think not ‘if’ it will hit but ‘when,’” Murray said.
Texas Children’s is among the state’s first health care organizations to take a proactive approach, conducting active surveillance to identify any positive chikungunya cases in children who come to the emergency clinic with a fever. Murray and her team have already tested hundreds of children with potential warning signs. So far there are no positive test results, but Murray explains that quick and early detection of cases will be critical for an adequate public health response to prevent an epidemic.
“We are laying the groundwork to educate both the public and physicians about this potentially serious disease and create a surveillance network among affiliated hospitals in Texas in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” she said.
Thanks to the hospital’s efforts, word is already starting to spread. USA Today and local KPRC Channel 2 interviewed Murray and published stories about chikungunya virus just last week. Murray is hopeful that increased awareness will lead to preventing bites and slow the spread of the disease.
“It is critical that physicians recognize the clinical features of this disease and keep it on the forefront of their minds when treating a child with a clinically-compatible febrile disease,” Murray said. “Considering the fact that we have the right mosquitoes and conditions here in Houston, we must not exclude chikungunya as a possibility in a child with no history of travel.”
Prevention tips from the CDC
No vaccine exists to prevent the chikungunya virus infection or disease. However, you can take steps avoid mosquito bites which could lead to infection. The mosquitoes that spread the chikungunya virus bite mostly during the daytime.
How to protect yourself and your family:
- Use air conditioning or window/door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If you are not able to protect yourself from mosquitoes inside your home or hotel, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
- Help reduce the number of mosquitoes outside your home or hotel room by emptying standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.
- When weather permits, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use insect repellents
Symptoms of chickungunya include fever, rash, severe joint pain and fatigue. To read more about the virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.