A mosquito-borne virus appears to be spreading quickly in the Caribbean during the winter tourism season just weeks after epidemiologists first found local transmission occurring in the French dependency of St. Martin.
Scientists said Tuesday that St. Martin now has as many as 200 cases of chikungunya, a virus found mainly in Africa and Asia that can cause a debilitating but rarely fatal sickness with fever, rash, fatigue and intense muscle and joint pain.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said new cases have been confirmed on the French Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Barthelemy. The virus also infected a couple of residents of Dutch St. Maarten, which shares an island with St. Martin that was already battling dengue fever, a more serious mosquito-borne illness.
On Monday, the British Virgin Islands reported three cases on the tiny isle of Jost Van Dyke, which has fewer than 300 inhabitants but fills with thousands of international revelers each New Year's Eve.
“It is important to note that these confirmed cases were not exposed to travel, which alerts us that the virus is already in our mosquito population,” British Virgin Islands medical officer Ronald Georges said.
The World Health Organization was notified of chikungunya's presence in the Caribbean in early December when the first two cases were confirmed in St. Martin among residents who had not traveled recently.
Public health officials on the islands have stepped up fogging programs and increased epidemiological surveillance. They are also urging people to clear out stagnant water to reduce mosquito breeding sites.
CDC epidemiologist Erin Staples said in a Tuesday email that “further spread to other Caribbean islands and to the surrounding mainland areas is possible in the coming months and years.”
She noted roughly 9 million U.S. residents visit the Caribbean each year. “Infected travelers could then cause local transmission of the virus in the United States if mosquitoes bite infected people and then bite other people,” she said.
Chikungunya means “that which bends up” in the Kimako language of Mozambique, a reference to the physique of a patient. It was first isolated in 1953 in the blood of a patient in Tanzania.