You’ve probably heard of malaria and Dengue fever, two tropical diseases carried by mosquitos, but few people have heard of the chikungunya virus.
The chikungunya virus, also mosquito-borne, was once isolated to Asia, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent, and was discovered in the 1950s in Tanzania. This diseases didn’t gain notoriety until 2007, when it began to spread to northeastern Italy, where it infected 10 people.
However, it isn’t until recent months that the disease has crossed to the Americas, where it is now spreading quickly throughout the Caribbean islands.
Over the last six months, the Pan American Health Organization has documented almost 4,600 new cases of chikungunya in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have just confirmed their first cases.
Chikungunya causes arthritis-like symptoms in its victims, including chronic joint pain, fever, rash, and nausea. These symptoms can last for months, or even years.
At least 20 islands and states in the Caribbean have confirmed cases of the disease, and it is spreading especially rapidly on the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, where 2,800 cases have been reported. At least 793 cases have been reported on the French side of St. Martin, and 123 on the Dutch side.
“It has not been here before, so people are susceptible, there is no resistance and we have had a lot of the mosquitoes that transmit it,” said Dr. James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency.
“The players in the tourism industry need to be concerned,” said Dr. Hospedales. “We have been working with the Caribbean Tourism Organization on some of the communications messages because you have to be truthful and honest in informing the population, but on the other hand you can’t cause alarm and panic.”
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, more than 25 million tourists visited the area region in 2013. It is one of the largest tourist destinations in the world.
As tourism to the area continues, the CDC worries that cruise ships will bring the disease back to the United States. In fact, the first cases of the disease were confirmed in Georgia and Florida.
Since then, the CDC has confirmed at least 60 new cases arising in the US.
To help prevent spreading the disease, public health officials advise travelers and tourists to wear protective clothing if possible, use mosquito nets, or use a reliable bug repellent.