The Newest Mosquito-borne Disease Is Scarier Than First Thought

Chikungunya means “to become contorted” or “that which is bent up” in Kimakonde, the language of the Makonde people in Tanzania and Mozambique. It refers to the bent or stooped stature of joint pain sufferers. And it also is the name of a mosquito-borne virus that can cause chronic symptoms like that in those who get infected with it.  In 2005, there was a year and a half epidemic of chikungunya on Reunion Island, near Madagascar, that may have been caused by residents collecting and storing water in open containers outside due to a drought.

And now it may be coming soon to a stagnant pond near you.

An informative, if somewhat frightening, article on the NPR website lays out the details:

Chikungunya starts with fevers and aches, like malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. What distinguishes the virus is that is also brings with it debilitating joint pain. The pain usually dwindles over the course of a few weeks, though it can leave some people with chronic arthritis.

But a new study in the journal Neurology, shows some people with chikungunya developed encephalitis, an infection of the brain that can lead to memory problems, dementia and even death. The study was conducted at the Central University Hospital in Saint Pierre, Reunion Island, off Madagascar.

Dr. Patrick Gerardin says an epidemic on Reunion Island affected some 300,000 people.

Gerardin and his colleagues followed up with patients three years after the outbreak. Looking at a sample of about 300 people, they found 57 had central nervous system disease, including 24 who had encephalitis.

“As it spreads across the world, we’re realizing that it’s not so benign” says Dr. Desiree LaBeaud, a professor of pediatrics who studies the chikungunya virus at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Several years after the Reunion Island outbreak, chikungunya was discovered in the Americas — first in the Caribbean in 2013 and then Mexico and Florida in 2014. The summer it was discovered in Florida, about a dozen people got the virus from mosquitoes in the southeastern part of the state.

Right now there is no approved vaccine for chikungunya, but one has been designed by researchers and is being tested. People who get infected with the virus do develop immunity to it, but as the study found, almost 20% end up with chronic issues, including encephalitis, so finding an effective vaccine is imperative.

Read the excellent article on the NPR website for more details.


Source: – “Chikungunya, A Mosquito-Borne Virus, Might Be Scarier Than We Thought

Featured Image Credit: David Scharf/Science Source