SAN CRISTOBAL, Dominican Republic — They suffer searing headaches, a burning fever and so much pain in their joints they can barely walk or use their hands. It's like having a terrible flu combined with an abrupt case of arthritis.
Hospitals and clinics throughout the Caribbean are seeing thousands of people with the same symptoms, victims of a virus with a long and unfamiliar name that has been spread rapidly by mosquitoes across the islands after the first locally transmitted case was confirmed in December.
"You feel it in your bones, your fingers and your hands. It's like everything is coming apart," said 34-year-old Sahira Francisco as she and her daughter waited for treatment at a hospital in San Cristobal, a town in the southern Dominican Republic that has seen a surge of the cases in recent days.
The virus is chikungunya, derived from an African word that loosely translates as "contorted with pain." People encountering it in the Caribbean for the first time say the description is fitting. While the virus is rarely fatal, it is extremely debilitating.
"It is terrible. I have never in my life gotten such an illness," said Maria Norde, a 66-year-old woman confined to bed at her home on the lush eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. "All my joints are in pain."
Outbreaks of the virus have long made people miserable in Africa and Asia. But it is new to the Caribbean, with the first locally transmitted case documented in December in French St. Martin, likely brought in by an infected air traveler. Health officials are now working feverishly to educate the public about the illness, reduce the mosquito population, and deal with an onslaught of cases.
Authorities are attempting to control mosquitoes throughout the Caribbean, from dense urban neighborhoods to beach resorts. There have been no confirmed cases of local transmission of chikungunya on the U.S. mainland, but experts say the high number of travelers to the region means that could change as early as this summer.
So far, there are no signs the virus is keeping visitors away, though some Caribbean officials warn it might if it is not controlled. "We need to come together and deal with this disease," said Dominica Tourism Minister Ian Douglas.
One thing is certain: The virus has found fertile ground in the Caribbean. The Pan American Health Organization reports more than 55,000 suspected and confirmed cases since December throughout the islands. It has also reached French Guiana, the first confirmed transmission on the South American mainland.
The Pan American Health Organization says seven people in the Caribbean with chikungunya have died during the outbreak, but they had underlying health issues that likely contributed to their death.
"It's building up like a snowball because of the constant movement of people," said Jacqueline Medina, a specialist at the Instituto Technologico university in the Dominican Republic, where some hospitals report more than 100 new cases per day.