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Health & Science

Texas Case Raises Concern Over Chikungunya Virus Reaching U.S.

Texans are familiar with the West Nile virus, but now there’s growing concern about a new mosquito-borne virus called chikungunya. Although the virus is not yet established in the U.S. mosquito populations, the illness has followed some travelers home.



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You may have only recently heard of chikungunya, but Scott Weaver at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has been studying it for 15 years.

The virus began in Africa, spread to Asia, and just last year was found in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Weaver says some travelers have brought the illness back to the U.S., like a Texas man from the Austin area, who recently travelled to the Caribbean. But the virus remained isolated.

So far the virus doesn’t appear to have spread to mosquitoes here. But Weaver says it could easily happen, and soon.

“Now that the virus is closer to home in the Caribbean and Latin America, the risk is probably higher,” he said. “We’ve already seen several dozen imported cases in other parts of the U.S., especially Florida.”

Weaver says chikungunya is a lot different from the West Nile virus.

West Nile can be fatal, and chikungunya rarely is. However, it makes most victims very sick, causing crippling joint pain that can last for weeks or even months.

“They’re very different viruses,” Weaver said. “Really, the only thing that they share in common is they’re transmitted by mosquitoes. They cause very different diseases. Chikungunya rarely causes neurologic disease, like encephalitis, whereas that’s the main serious consequence of West Nile virus infection. They’re also transmitted by very different kinds of mosquitoes.”

Weaver is developing a vaccine against the virus, but until it’s ready he says people should take all the usual precautions against mosquito bites, especially if traveling to the Caribbean or Latin America.