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New African Mosquito Virus Hits The West

September 21, 2009

Most people will recall the West Nile virus scare that incited fear throughout North America just 10 years ago; however new mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S. and Europe are posing a farther greater health risk, an expert in the U.S. said on Friday.

The Chikungunya virus first popped up in Africa in 2005, but has now greatly spread, leaving a trail of outbreaks and enumerable deaths in India and the French island of Reunion. Cases have even been reported in Italy and France, where the virus has started to spread locally.

“We’re very worried,” Dr. James Diaz of the Louisiana University Health Sciences Center told a meeting on airlines, airports and disease transmission sponsored by the independent U.S. National Research Council.

“Unlike West Nile virus, where nine out of 10 people are going to be totally asymptomatic, or may have a mild headache or a stiff neck, if you get Chikungunya you’re going to be sick,” he said.

“The disease can be fatal. It’s a serious disease,” Diaz added. “There is no vaccine.”

Those infected by Chikungunya experience symptoms ranging from fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, rash and joint pain. Such symptoms can last a few weeks, but some have even reported excruciating joint pain or arthritis lasting months.

The virus was originally found in Tanzania in 1952. Its name means “that which bends up” in the Makonde language used in northern Mozambique and southeastern Tanzania, Reuters reported.

The virus now poses a threat to the rest of the world because it is carried by the Asian tiger mosquito, which is found in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.

In the U.S., the mosquito species gravitates toward the southern regions east of the Mississippi, but has been spotted as far as western Texas, Minnesota and New Jersey.

Health officials are especially worried about Chikungunya occurring in the islands of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius, Seychelles and Reunion, which have beach resorts popular with European tourists.

“It is hyper-endemic in the islands of the Indian Ocean,” Diaz told the meeting.

“Travel by air will import the infected mosquitoes and humans,” he added. “Chikungunya is coming.”

He also made the statement that double-infections are possible, as the Asian tiger mosquito is known to carry Chikungunya, dengue fever and malaria.
Diaz says that he expects the disease to have spread more in “Ëœmega-cities’ like Mumbai and Mexico City, which have large and impoverished populations, poor health controls and water systems that provide the perfect conditions for mosquitoes to breed.

The West Nile virus is carried by a different mosquito species. It first appeared in New York in 1999, but can now be found in most of North America.

Image Courtesy James Gathany/CDC

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