(NaturalNews) The number of cases of the painful, mosquito-borne virus chikungunya spiked in New York and New Jersey in the last week of July, raising new fears for the potential that the disease will gain a permanent foothold along the U.S. East Coast.
"The arrival of chikungunya virus, first in the tropical Americas and now in the United States, underscores the risks posed by this and other exotic pathogens," said Roger Nasci, PhD, head of the Arboviral Diseases Branch for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "This emphasizes the importance of CDC's health security initiatives designed to maintain effective surveillance networks, diagnostic laboratories and mosquito control programs both in the United States and around the world."
New Jersey cases doubled in one week
Symptoms of chikungunya, which manifest three to seven days after a bite from an infected mosquito, are similar to those of dengue fever. The most common symptoms are high fever and intense muscle pain; other common symptoms include rash, headache and back pain. The disease is rarely fatal. There is no way to prevent the disease other than to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes and no treatment other than symptomatic relief with painkillers.
New Jersey officials reported that the state's number of reported chikungunya cases this year more than doubled in a single week, to a total of 25. In New York, 44 cases have been reported, more than any state but Florida.
So far, all of the cases in both states were in people who were bitten by mosquitoes while traveling in other countries. Florida is the only state where the virus appears to have already established itself in the local mosquito population.
Chikungunya is spread by two species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. Both species bite during the daytime and can be found in the southeastern and southwestern United States. A. albopictus has a wider range and is also found in the lower Midwest and across the mid-Atlantic states.
U.S. epidemic looming?
Although chikungunya was first identified in 1953, it did not reach the Americas until its appearance in the Caribbean in late 2013. Since then, the disease has been spreading rapidly. On July 17, Puerto Rico declared an epidemic. The Pan American Health Organization reports 354,000 confirmed or suspected cases across the Caribbean as of July 11.
"We're seeing an epidemic ripping through a naive population, with a very large number of cases in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere," said Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine. "There is every reason to believe we could see similar epidemics along the US Gulf Coast maybe later this summer or starting next year."
Until the disease became naturalized in the Caribbean, chikungunya was rare in the United States and only appeared in people who had recently traveled to Asia or Africa; only about 28 cases were reported per year. According to a CDC report issued in the last week of July, however, there have already been 400 cases of chikungunya in the non-Caribbean United States this year, plus another 215 cases in Puerto Rico. Of these cases, two were contracted locally on the mainland (in Florida), and 199 were contracted locally in Puerto Rico.
"With the recent outbreaks in the Caribbean and the Pacific, the number of chikungunya cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States from affected areas will continue to increase," the CDC said.
The only reliable way to avoid getting chikungunya is to keep from getting bitten by mosquitoes. The CDC recommends that people traveling in areas with infected mosquitoes wear long sleeves and pants, use insect repellent and stay in areas with window and door screens and air conditioning.
For more information, including chikungunya travel advisories, visit CDC.gov.