Beware chikungunya, a new illness in the Caribbean (Photo: Thinkstock)
If you’re traveling to the Caribbean anytime soon, bring the DEET. Chikungunya, a virulent mosquito-borne illness with no known cure is sweeping the islands. The disease is similar to dengue and causes extreme muscle pain that can last months or even years; it has been fatal in rare cases.
Historically, chikungunya (pronounced chik-en-GUN-ya), which was first discovered in Tanzania in 1952, has been more prevalent in Africa and Asia. Saint Martin was the first location in the Western Hemisphere to report cases of the disease in December 2013. In recent months it has spread across the region, with over 10,000 cases on islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique. Even tony Saint Bart’s hasn’t been spared. There have also been isolated cases as far away as Florida and Venezuela.
“It’s been absolutely blowing up recently," Chris Pardee, the manager of health intelligence for iJET International told Yahoo Travel. The disease even has a nickname throughout the islands: Chik-V.
A village in French Saint Martin, which has been hard hit by chikungunya. (Photo: Thinkstock)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 800,000 people have been afflicted in the Caribbean and surrounding countries — and over 1,500 U.S. citizens contracted chikungunya on vacation in the region and brought it back to the U.S. Previously, the United States only had about 30 cases annually.
The Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency, which is the CDC of the region, recently said that “the number of countries/territories reporting cases of chikungunya continues to increase.”
Meanwhile, Pardee says the numbers might even be higher than what is being reported. “For as many cases as we have seen reported, it’s likely that there are many more cases,” he said. “It’s the type of disease that only a fraction of the people who contract it develop symptoms that are bad enough to see a doctor or go to a hospital.”
In addition to fever and joint pain, other chikungunya symptoms can include muscle aches, headaches, joint swelling, or rash, according to the CDC.
Travelers are becoming increasingly concerned. "We have been getting more and more inquiries about chikungunya recently,” says Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations, a luxury travel agency. “Strangely enough it has been going on for almost a year now in the Caribbean, but media attention is growing and causing people to question their travel patterns.”
The village of Anses d’Arlet village in Martinique. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Across the region, assertive actions are being taken to combat the disease. “Our health officials are very actively engaging local communities to destroy mosquito breeding sites in order to reduce and eventually eliminate new cases of the virus,” said Hugh Riley, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “The aggressive program includes fumigation and getting rid of stagnant water and cleaning up the surroundings.”
Hotels are providing free mosquito repellent to guests and fumigating for mosquitoes. Islands are creating awareness programs and posting notifications in popular tourist spots. In Jamaica, even churches are being asked to help get involved by cleaning up and eradicating standing water in their communities. And in an effort to combat both chikungunya and dengue, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago are considering a radical option: introducing genetically modified mosquitoes.
Some of the harder hit islands are already seeing results. Steve Bennett, spokesperson for the Martinique Promotion Bureau, said that cases of the disease peaked in July, and that the island’s efforts since then — including a national day of awareness on Aug. 8 — have resulted in a decrease in cases.
In addition to fumigating, the Dutch country of Saint Maarten — just across the border from hard-hit French Saint Martin — has started doing yard-to-yard inspections and making daily public announcements. According to Richard Kahn, spokesperson for Dutch St. Maarten, “The number of incidents of chikungunya are declining regularly, indicating that the precautions are working.”
And the good news for the region is that travelers aren’t deterred. "People have been taking reasonable precautions and we are happy to see that life and vacations have not been disrupted,” according to Jeff Vasser, Director General and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.
Ovation Travel’s Ezon said he wouldn’t hesitate to take a trip to the region now. "Would I go? Yes, I would go tomorrow, and I have,” he said. “I am just extra cautious, as always, to use bug repellant.”
Insect repellant is your friend. (Photo: Thinkstock)
And hope is on the horizon: A vaccine recently passed a clinical trial, but it still might take a couple years to reach the final development stage.
In the meantime, what can travelers do to protect themselves? According to the CDC, avoiding mosquito bites is vital, and using repellent is the top preventative measure. Travelers should also wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. It’s also wise to sleep in an air-conditioned room or a room with screens on the windows. You should also be aware that chikungunya-borne mosquitoes tend to bite in the daytime, versus your average mosquito that bites at dawn and dusk.
And as experts point out, there’s no need to panic. “Travelers should put things into perspective,” says Ezon. “They have more of a likelihood of contracting the flu in their home town, which could be equally, if not more, debilitating and fatal.”