Researchers are warning that the painful Chikungunya disease spreading quickly through the Caribbean may have found footing in Florida.
[WEB EXTRA: Mosquito Warnings]
The Center for Disease Control is reporting that Florida has seen 138 travel-associated cases of Chikungunya in the state and four locally transmitted cases as of Aug. 12. These cases were reported through ArboNET, the national surveillance system for arthropod-borne diseases
Countries or territories visited include Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Indonesia, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Tonga and U.S. Virgin Islands.
Chikungunya virus is rarely fatal. Infected people can suffer from flu like symptoms including fever, headaches, swelling and joint pain. The disease gets it's name from a word in an African dialect meaning "that which bends up."
People usually recover in about a week but some suffer long-term joint pain that can last months or years.
Dr. Walter Tabachnick, director of the University of Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach says it's the biggest threat he's seen in his 35-year career.
"I don't know what the future holds," he says. "I can't predict that. I can tell you we're at risk. I can tell you that there is a potential for large numbers of people to get sick."
Tabachnick says the treat comes initially from travelers to the Caribbean who become infected through a mosquito bite and return to the U.S. He says if they get bit by a mosquito after returning, that mosquito is capable of infecting more people in the U.S.
"Everyone would place Florida at the top of any list (for risk) that you care to make, because of our mosquito population, our geographic location and we are a gateway to the Caribbean where there are a substantial number of cases," he said.
He worries that more locally transmitted cases are not being reported either through misdiagnosis or the fact that it is a non-reportable disease. This means that if a doctor treats a patient for chikungunya that doctor is not required to report it to the health department.
There are 90 species of mosquitoes here in Florida but only two have shown a likely ability to transmit disease through a bite.. They are commonly called the yellow fever mosquito and Asian tiger mosquito.
What has Tabachnick and mosquito control officers throughout the state concerned is that these two mosquitoes breed primarily in man-made containers. Anything left in your yard that can hold even the smallest bit of water is a potential breeding ground.
Mosquito Control and health departments across Central Florida are pleading with homeowners to clean up debris and dump standing water at least one a week.
"I think it's a major, essential step," Tabachnick says. "If we're ever going to have a chance at reducing our risk we have to get the public to change it's behavior."