Thousands of Caribbean travelers coming home with mosquito-borne virus

Photo By Wilfredo Lee/AP In this Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 photo, Marisa Hargrove stands in her backyard in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla. Hargrove, 42, was working in her backyard in 2014 when she believes she was bitten by a mosquito carrying the chikungunya virus, becoming one of the first Americans to have caught chikungunya from local mosquitoes. State health officials say at least 11 people have been infected in Florida, and they worry the virus will become established there.

Thousands of travelers to the Caribbean and nearby regions are coming home with an unwanted souvenir: a mosquito-borne virus that recently settled there. The virus, called chikungunya (chih-kihn-GOON’-yuh), causes severe, often disabling joint pain, and few U.S. doctors are prepared to recognize its signs. At one New York City hospital, a woman arrived in such agony she had to be admitted just to control her pain. “Thinks she has chicken virus??” the mystified staff wrote on the medical chart after interviewing the patient. Since it spread from Asia and Africa in late 2013, chikungunya has infected a million people in the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of South America and Mexico. Actress Lindsay Lohan recently said she got it while in French Polynesia. In the U.S. alone, more than 2,300 travelers since last May have brought home the virus, which has nothing to do with chickens. About a dozen people have gotten it from mosquito bites in Florida. The virus can cause fever, a rash, headache and joint pain, mostly in the arms and legs, that can lasts for month and in some cases, even years. Symptoms usually start three to seven days after the mosquito bite.  It happened to Marisa Hargrove, who went to a Miami emergency room with joint pain so bad her husband had to help her to the bathroom. A doctor ran tests for common illnesses “and basically called me his mystery case of the day,” she said. Back home and getting sicker, she searched her symptoms on the Internet and returned to the hospital. “Is it possible it’s this new chikungunya?” she asked. “The doctor looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘What the heck is that?'” A blood test confirmed she had it, and the 42-year-old Miami woman became one of the first Americans to have caught chikungunya from local mosquitoes. State health officials say at least 11 people have been infected in Florida, and they worry the virus will become established there. Florida is not the only state at risk. The mosquitoes that spread chikungunya live throughout the South, West and Eastern seaboard of the U.S. Local mosquitoes that bite a traveler infected with the virus can pass it on when they bite others. “We’re very concerned” about travelers because Tennessee has the mosquitoes and climate to let the disease take hold, Abelardo Moncayo of that state’s Department of Health told an audience at an American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference in New Orleans in November. More