Thursday, May 24, 2018
Health

Chikungunya virus: It's coming for us, but not quite yet

Don't try calling in sick with chikungunya just yet.

Though 81 cases of the virus have been reported in Florida so far this year, including a new case confirmed in Pinellas County on Tuesday, none of them was contracted in the U.S.

The mosquito-borne disease is widespread in the Caribbean, and the latest case in Pinellas County is an 81-year-old woman who returned from the region after traveling there in June and early July.

It's possible that an infected person bitten by a mosquito here could transmit the virus locally, but that's considered unlikely.

Still, researchers say chikungunya will make its way here, though it will take time.

"It will just need to adapt to our cooler climate," said Dr. Sally Alrabaa, an assistant professor of infectious disease at the University of South Florida. "That should happen in the next 10 years."

The virus is spread mostly by two breeds of mosquito, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. They bite in the daytime and are also famous for transmitting the dengue virus. Both species live in Florida. They'll be ready when the virus finally adapts.

"It's a story that was told by other viruses before, and we just think it's a matter of time," Alrabaa said.

Alrabaa pointed to the case of West Nile virus, which arrived from the Middle East in the late 1990s and adapted to multiply in the United States.

The Pan American Health Organization reports more than 55,000 suspected and confirmed cases of chikungunya since December throughout the Caribbean. Seven people have died, all of whom had underlying health issues that likely contributed to their deaths.

Three cases have been reported in Hillsborough County and one case has been reported in Pasco County — all in people who had just been traveling abroad.

Sufferers report high fever and joint pain as the virus moves through their system. Alrabaa said that in rare cases, particularly in the very old or very young or those with weakened immune systems, the symptoms can be prolonged and joint pain can be severe.

There is no treatment beyond ibuprofen and fluids, but in healthy sufferers, the symptoms are short-lived.

Alrabaa said that last month a woman in her mid 30s arrived at Tampa General Hospital, where Alrabaa also works, and said she thought she had chikungunya. There had been an outbreak in the Caribbean country where she was traveling. After testing ruled out malaria and dengue fever, she was given fluids, spent a few days in the hospital and was released.

"Most of the time (symptoms) are nonconsequential, in most people," Alrabaa said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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