Virus from mosquitoes worries health officials

Jul. 01, 2014 @ 04:56 PM

As the number of confirmed cases increase, state health officials warn residents to protect themselves against a new mosquito-borne virus.

Three confirmed cases and one suspected case of chikungunya (pronunciation: \chik-en-gun-ye) have been reported in North Carolina. The first was announced June 11 in Forsyth County. A second case, in Alamance County, was confirmed June 25.

Monday, a third case was confirmed in Buncome County. Health officials are investigating a suspected case in Randolph County. Two chikungunya cases were confirmed in Tennessee.

Each patient has recently traveled to the Caribbean for vacation. People traveling abroad are encouraged to get vaccinated against communicable diseases before they leave, Union County Health Director Phillip Tarte said. But there are some illnesses, like chikungunya, for which there are no vaccines or treatments.

“Really, the most you can do is treat the symptoms,” Tarte said. “And since this is a relatively new disease to this area, we don’t know much about it.”

Chikungunya is not fatal, but it does cause severe and sometimes debilitating joint pain in the hands, wrists, ankles and feet. Other symptoms include headaches, rash, muscle pain and joint swelling. The elderly and infants are at a higher risk for acute symptoms.

Treatment includes analgesics, rest and fluid intake. Patients should also avoid situations where they could be bitten by mosquitoes to avoid the spread of chikungunya. The virus incubates for 3 to 7 days before the infected begin experiencing symptoms.

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Chikungunya was, until recently, only found in tropical regions on the other side of the world.

“Chikungunya virus was first identified in Tanzania in 1953 and has periodically caused outbreaks in Africa for decades. It continues to cause outbreaks in central Africa, Southwest Asia and the pacific island,” states a June 23 letter from State Epidemiologist Megan Davies.

But the virus spread to the Americas. The first case was confirmed Dec. 6, 2013 on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. For the past six months, the virus has spread among the islands.

“While transmission has not yet been documented in the continental U.S., local transmission within N.C. is possible...” Davies wrote.

Chikungunya is mainly transmitted by a specific mosquito - the Asian Tiger Mosquito. It is an aggressive type of mosquito that bites humans during the day. Most native mosquitos come out in early morning or evening. It is rarely transmitted through infected blood or from mothers to newborns during birth.

For now, no Union County cases have been reported, but residents should be vigilant, Tarte said.

“One of the simplest ways to reduce the risk of being bitten by mosquitoes is to empty anything holding standing water,” Tarte said. “That can be bird baths or planters or old tires. Mosquitoes can spawn in even the smallest amount of standing water.”

He also suggested keeping windows and doors closed or covering them with a screen to avoid mosquitoes entering homes.

Residents planning a vacation to the Caribbean or other areas of high disease should also take special care to prevent infection.

“Now especially, it being vacation season for a lot of people, the risk is increased,” Tarte said.

Take some steps to protect you and your family from chikungunya and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

• Eliminate any standing water outside

• Wear long sleeves and pants as weather permits

• Wear insect repellents like DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus

• Seek medical treatment if a high fever and joint pain begin shortly after traveling