New Mosquito-Borne Disease in the Caribbean

Chikungunya infections cause St. Martin travel advisory by CDC as virus enters western hemisphere

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) US residents might be familiar with West Nile, and perhaps even dengue, but now a new mosquito-borne illness is showing up closer to US shores.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced this week that it is watching the development of chikungunya cases in the Caribbean.

Ten cases have been confirmed in St. Martin, and CDC has issued a travel advisory to the area, suggesting that visitors step up efforts to prevent mosquito bites.

"Cover up to help prevent mosquito bites."

A main symptom of chikungunya is severe joint pain that can sometimes linger for long periods, but the condition rarely leads to death. There is currently no specific treatment for the virus and no vaccine to protect against it.

"The term chikungunya comes from a word in the Makonde language (spoken in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique in Africa) and means 'that which bends up,' because patients often are stooped in pain while suffering from the disease," explained CDC.

According to CDC, 10 cases of chikungunya have been confirmed in residents of the French side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin, and testing is ongoing to confirm additional possible cases.

"While outbreaks of chikungunya have been reported in some parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, this marks the first time the disease has been reported among non-travelers in the Western Hemisphere," CDC reported.

The confirmed chikungunya patients had not traveled recently before coming ill, leading health authorities to believe that the virus was acquired locally and is present among the island's mosquitos.

The development of chikungunya in the Western Hemisphere, while unwanted, did not take authorities by surprise. CDC reported that health officials had predicted the arrival of the virus for sometime, allowing for the surveillance systems currently tracking it.

In the past, chikungunya has caused few illnesses in the US, all in travelers, and almost all during years with large outbreaks in the Indian region, said CDC.

But this development of cases closer to home has put health officials on alert — CDC estimated that around 9 million US residents visit the Caribbean annually.

"Given that volume of travelers, chikungunya could occur more frequently in returning U.S. mainland travelers if the virus expands in the region," said CDC. "Infected travelers could then cause local transmission of the virus in the United States if mosquitoes bite infected people and then bite other people."

CDC issued a travel advisory in the face of these developments. The advisory recommends that Americans traveling to St. Martin take precautions to avoid mosquito bites, including using insect repellant, wearing long sleeves and long pants and keeping mosquitos out of doors through the use of air conditioners and screened doors and windows.

CDC also recommended that travelers returning from the Caribbean and their doctors be on alert for symptoms like joint pains, fever, headache, muscle pains and rash.

Review Date: 
December 19, 2013
Last Updated:
December 19, 2013