According to health officials, the number of suspected and confirmed cases of chikungunya virus in Caribbean countries has risen sharply over past weeks.
Tens of thousands of new cases have been reported in the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti.
There is currently no vaccine or treatment for the mosquito-borne virus which resembles dengue fever and can cause fever, skin rash and joint pain.
European health authorities have warned travelers to take extra precautions.
The number of suspected and confirmed cases of chikungunya virus in Caribbean countries has risen sharply over past weeks
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control told people travelling to the Caribbean to apply insect repellent and avoid mosquito bites.
France has detected more than 70 imported cases of chikungunya, mainly in people returning from holidays in the French Antilles.
The Centre said there was a risk the virus could spread in Europe if infected patients were bitten by mosquitoes upon their return home and those mosquitoes then infected other people.
There are also signs chikungunya is spreading further to Central and South America.
According to the latest figures released by the Pan American Heath Organization (PAHO), almost 265,000 suspected and confirmed cases have been recorded since the outbreak began in December.
More than half of those have been in the Dominican Republic, which has stepped up its fumigation efforts in an attempt to reduce the number of mosquitoes.
Health officials warn that the true numbers may be much higher as some countries have been slow in testing and reporting cases.
Chikungunya is rarely fatal but according to the PAHO, 21 people have died in the Caribbean after contracting the virus.
There have also been cases in Central America, with El Salvador the hardest hit with 1,300 suspected incidences.
Paraguay recorded its first citizen with the virus on Tuesday, but said the man had contracted it while travelling in the Dominican Republic.
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Thousands of people in Carribean hospitals are the victims of a virus with a long and unfamiliar name that has been spread rapidly by mosquitoes across the islands after the first locally transmitted case was confirmed in December.
They suffer searing headaches, a burning fever and so much pain in their joints they can barely walk or use their hands. It’s like having a terrible flu combined with an abrupt case of arthritis.
The virus is chikungunya, derived from an African word that loosely translates as “contorted with pain”. People encountering it in the Caribbean for the first time say the description is fitting. While the virus is rarely fatal it is extremely debilitating.
Outbreaks of the virus have long made people miserable in Africa and Asia. But it is new to the Caribbean, with the first locally transmitted case documented in December in French St. Martin, likely brought in by an infected air traveler. Health officials are now working feverishly to educate the public about the illness, knock down the mosquito population, and deal with an onslaught of cases.
Authorities are attempting to control mosquitoes throughout the Caribbean, from dense urban neighborhoods to beach resorts. There have been no confirmed cases of local transmission of chikungunya on the US mainland, but experts say the high number of travelers to the region means that could change as early as this summer.
Chikungunya virus is spread by two species of mosquitoes, aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus
So far, there are no signs the virus is keeping visitors away though some Caribbean officials warn it might if it is not controlled.
“We need to come together and deal with this disease,” said Dominica Tourism Minister Ian Douglas.
The Pan American Health Organization reports more than 55,000 suspected and confirmed cases since December throughout the islands. It has also reached French Guiana, the first confirmed transmission on the South American mainland.
“It’s building up like a snowball because of the constant movement of people,” said Jacqueline Medina, a specialist at the Instituto Technologico university in the Dominican Republic, where some hospitals report more than 100 new cases per day.
Chikungunya was identified in Africa in 1953 and is found throughout the tropics of the Eastern Hemisphere. It is spread by two species of mosquitoes, aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus. It’s also a traveler-borne virus under the right circumstances.
It can spread to a new area if someone has it circulating in their system during a relatively short period of time, roughly 2-3 days before the onset of symptoms to 5 days after, and then arrives to an area with the right kind of mosquitoes.
For years, there have been sporadic cases of travelers diagnosed with chikungunya but without local transmission.
The two species of mosquitoes that spread chikungunya are found in the southern and eastern US and the first local transmissions could occur this summer given the large number of American travelers to the Caribbean.
Already, the Florida Department of Health has reported at least four imported cases from travelers to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Dominica.
Around the Caribbean, local authorities have been spraying fogs of pesticides and urging people to remove standing pools of water where mosquitoes breed.
An estimated 60-90% of those infected show symptoms, compared to around 20% for dengue, which is common in the region. There is no vaccine and the only cure is treatment for the pain and fluid loss.
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