Painful Virus Sweeps Central America, Gains A Toehold In U.S.

Jan 1, 2015
Originally published on January 1, 2015 9:34 pm

Most of us will remember 2014 as the year Ebola came to the U.S. But another virus made its debut in the Western Hemisphere. And unlike Ebola, it's not leaving anytime soon.

The virus is called chikungunya: You pronounce it a bit like "chicken-goon-ya."

Although the illness is rarely fatal, it's by no means mild, says virologist Ann Powers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes such severe joint pain, she says, that "people who have it can't stand up or don't even want to shake your hand because it's too painful."

Until recently, infection with the mosquito-borne virus was restricted mostly to Asia and Africa. Then, in December 2013, a few dozen cases cropped up on the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean. By February, there were thousands of cases across the region, and hundreds of thousands by June. In July, chikungunya had spread to Central America, South America — and Florida.

"Chikungunya is an amazing virus," Powers says. "It spreads incredibly fast and is very aggressive. In some communities, more than half the population gets sick."

The Western Hemisphere recorded more than a million cases of chikungunya in 2014. The U.S. had more than 2,000 cases, with about 500 of those in the state of New York.

In nearly all these instances, U.S. residents caught the virus outside the country and then brought it back home.

But in Florida, the virus set up shop. The mosquitoes in southeastern Florida got infected with chikungunya and spread the infection to at least 11 people.

"That's not very many," says Walter Tabachnick, who leads the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Florida. "But we're worried about this. All the blocks are falling into place. You've got to be worried about this."

Florida and the regions around the Gulf of Mexico have all the right ingredients for a huge outbreak in 2015, Tabachnick says — the types of mosquitoes that carry chikungunya, as well as a steady flow of travelers from the Caribbean and Central America (where the virus is just gaining a foothold). Mexico reported its first case of chikungunya in November.

"There's very little predictability for chikungunya," Tabachnick says. "But would 50,000 or 100,000 cases in Florida be surprising? I don't know. I don't think so. I wouldn't be surprised."

The take-home message, Tabachnick says, is twofold. First: Clean up your yard. Get rid of all standing water, where mosquitoes grow. That includes watering cans and flower pots, he says — anything with a small puddle of water in it.

And second: "Stay tuned," Tabachnick says. "We haven't seen the end of this. There will be other cases."

Chikungunya is just getting started.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Last year, while people were worried about Ebola spreading in the U.S., a different, new virus flew right in and made itself at home. Lindsay Lohan just tweeted that she'd gotten it, so now it's definitely a thing. The virus is called - actually, we'll let NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff tell you how to pronounce its name.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: OK, the virus that were talking about - there's no easy way to say it, but you start off with...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

DOUCLEFF: Chicken, like chickens that you eat. The middle part kind of sounds like goon - you know, the '80s movie "The Goonies."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOONIES 'R' GOOD ENOUGH")

CINDI LAUPER: (Singing) Good enough.

DOUCLEFF: And then you just end it like a karate chop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ay-ya.

DOUCLEFF: Chicken, goon, ya. But Ann Powers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says chikungunya has nothing to do with chickens or "The Goonies" - clearly. The name dates back to the 1950s, when the chikungunya was first detected in eastern Africa. The virus didn't kill people, but it caused excruciating joint pain.

ANN POWERS: People were in such pain that they couldn't stand up. They were hunched over. And that's actually where the name came from. Chikungunya basically means that which stoops over.

DOUCLEFF: For 50 years, chikungunya stayed mostly in Africa. But then in 2004, it went on a world tour. Chikungunya spreads by mosquitoes. And the virus hopped across to India and caused a massive outbreak.

POWERS: From there, it basically exploded and went everywhere.

DOUCLEFF: It went to Thailand, Indonesia, then to Taiwan, Italy and France. But during all of this time, the Western Hemisphere remained free of chikungunya until December 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER: The Public Health Department has announced that a vector-borne illness seen widely in the Eastern Hemisphere has reached the Caribbean.

DOUCLEFF: A few dozen cases of chikungunya cropped up on the island of St. Martin. By February, there were thousands of cases across the Caribbean, hundreds of thousands by June. And in July...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER: We're just getting word of our first locally transmitted case of the chikungunya virus in Florida.

DOUCLEFF: The U.S. ended up with more than 2000 cases of chikungunya in 2014. New York state alone had more than 500. All these people got infected outside the U.S. and brought the disease here with them. But in Florida, mosquitoes are now carrying the virus, which means it's spreading inside the state. And at least 11 people caught chikungunya in Florida. Now, that's not many.

WALTER TABACHNICK: But we're worried about this. All of the blocks are falling into place. You got to be worried about this.

DOUCLEFF: That's Walter Tabachnick. He runs the Medical Mosquito Lab at the University of Florida. Tabachnick says Florida and parts of the southern U.S. have all the right ingredients for a huge outbreak, including a constant flow of travelers from Central America. Mexico just reported its first case of chikungunya in November.

TABACHNICK: There is very little predictability, but would 50,000 or 100,000 cases be surprising? I don't know. I don't think so. I wouldn't be surprised.

DOUCLEFF: There's no vaccine or cure for chikungunya. Painkillers are the only treatment for it. Some people end up with joint pain for months or even a year. Tabachnick says the take-home message is twofold - clean up your yard, get rid of all standing water where mosquitoes grow and...

TABACHNICK: Stay tuned. We're not through with this. There will be other cases.

DOUCLEFF: Because here in the U.S., chikungunya is just getting started. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.