Health experts are concerned that chikungunya fever — a debilitating mosquito-borne disease that was once confined to Africa and Asia — has now spread to the Caribbean and may soon begin to make its way across North and South America.
An infection with the chikungunya (chik-un-GUN-ya) virus causes severe pain, high fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and rash. The name is derived from an East African word for "that which bends," a reference to the posture adopted by infected people who are stooped over from intense joint pain.
And though the disease can't be spread directly from person to person, a mosquito that bites a person who's infected with the virus can easily spread the disease by biting another person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (7 Devastating Infectious Diseases)
The spread of chikungunya was first reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2013, after 10 residents on the Caribbean island of St. Martin were confirmed to have the disease.
In the months since then, chikungunya has spread to other Caribbean countries, including popular tourist destinations such as Guadeloupe, Martinique and the British Virgin Islands.
Will chikungunya spread to the US?
The disease isn't unknown in the United States, but all previous documented cases have been in people who traveled outside the United States to countries where chikungunya is established, and were not caused by infected mosquitoes within the United States.
That may change, however, since the mosquitoes that carry the virus — Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus — are already found in the United States. Some experts worry that it's only a matter of time before chikungunya fever spreads to the United States.
"We definitely should be concerned," said Laura Harrington, a professor of entomology at Cornell University who specializes in the spread of chikungunya and other tropical diseases.
The death rate from chikungunya is fairly low — about 1 to 2 percent — "but it does cause a lot of discomfort," Harrington told Live Science. Most of the deaths caused by the disease are among the elderly or people with compromised immune systems.
And because the virus has an incubation period of from two to 12 days, according to the CDC, people carrying the disease often won't know they have it.