Map of the Day: Chikungunya in the Americas

Today’s map comes via the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and shows where the mosquito born illness Chikungunya is located in the world.

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As of this week, however, this map is out of date. For the first time in recorded history, there have been locally transmitted cases of Chikungunya in the Americas.  On Monday, the World Health Organization issued an alert that there are two confirmed, four probable and twenty suspected cases of Chikungunya on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

This is a first. And it means that Chikungunya could become the next West Nile virus or Dengue Fever to sweep across the region.

Chikungunya is rarely fatal. Like Dengue and West Nile, it is transmitted to humans via mosquito, and very easily so. People suffering the disease develop a fever, headache and have intense pain in their joints, which can last many weeks. The name, chikungunya is from the Makonde language roughly meaning “that which bends up”, reflecting the physique of a person suffering from the disease, says the WHO. There is no treatment or vaccine for the disease.

There have been sporadic outbreaks since the disease was identified, but the pace and scope of these outbreaks have increased in recent years. In 2004, an outbreak in coastal Kenya spread quickly to Comoros, La Reunion and throughout islands in the Indian Ocean, sickening 500,000. By 2006, it hit India where 1.7 million more people were infected through 2010.

The Pan American Health Organization (a division of the WHO) and the CDC have been warning that conditions are ripe for a Chikungunya outbreak in the Americas.  The same mosquitos that carry the virus are present throughout the Americas, stretching from Argentina to upstate New York. (And that geographic imprint will expand as temperatures increase due to climate change).  It was only a matter of time until the disease made its way to this side of the world. They big task now for the World Health Organization, CDC and PAHO is to track and isolate the virus.

A 2011 report from PAHO and the CDC offered recommendations and guidelines for the epidemiological surveillance of Chikungunya, making the case that tools currently used to track  and mitigate Dengue fever should be harnessed to include Chikungunya surveillance. The same mosquitos can carry both viruses.

This comparison should shock national health authorities into action. Latin America is in the midst of an unprecedented dengue epidemic, which is hitting urban areas particularly hard. From

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This is year zero of Chikungunya in the Americas. The extent to which this virus can be contained depends on the capacity of national health authorities to meet this threat head on. Unless these warnings are heeded, Chikungunya could be as common as West Nile or Dengue. That would be a public health catastrophe.