Chikungunya

Written by Rachel Nall, BSN | Published on May 7, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on May 7, 2014

What Is Chikungunya?

Chikungunya is a virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes. Also known as CHIKV, the virus was first detected in 1952 in southern Tanzania. The name means “to become contorted” in the Kimakonde language. The name alludes to the stooped appearance of chikungunya sufferers with joint pain, which is one of the symptoms of the infection.

The condition occurred primarily in Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent for several decades. I spread to northeastern Italy in 2007, according to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2014). It has since been diagnosed in the Americas and elsewhere in Europe. From 2006 to 2009, an estimated 106 chikungunya cases were diagnosed in the United States (in people who had contracted the virus while traveling), yet those cases did not lead to an epidemic, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (2014).

In 2004, a severe outbreak of the chikungunya virus affected two million people in Asia and Africa.

What Causes Chikungunya?

Two mosquito species, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, are carriers for the chikungaya virus. These mosquito types are most common in the southeastern U.S. and tend to bite people during the day. When an infected mosquito bites a person, the virus can be transmitted and then multiplies rapidly in the blood.

Mosquitoes also transmit viruses such as dengue and West Nile (WNV). The chikungaya virus is more likely to infect a person than other mosquito-transmitted viruses. After a bite by a carrier mosquito, 72 to 97 percent of people will experience symptoms, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (2014).

What Are the Symptoms of Chikungunya?

Chikungunya symptoms closely mirror those of the dengue fever, which can make diagnosis difficult. The most common symptom is joint aches and pains. The disease also causes the following symptoms:

  • depression
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • rash

Symptoms  normally last for 3 to 7 days. However, some people can experience them for as long as 12 days.

Chikungunya symptoms differ from those of dengue fever because the pain is more intense and more concentrated in the joints. This joint pain can last for years after primary chikungaya symptoms have largely passed.

How Is Chikungunya Diagnosed?

Physicians diagnose chikungunya based on symptoms. A blood test can also reveal higher than normal amounts of antibodies, which can indicate a virus. Sometimes, these are not detected until a patient has had the virus for four to five days, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

How Is Chikungunya Treated?

There is no cure for Chikungunya. As with the flu virus and other similar viruses, treatment focuses on keeping the patient as comfortable and pain-free as possible. Over-the-counter medications that do not contain aspirin, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are usually recommended. A doctor may prescribe pain medications if pain is severe.

Preventing Chikungunya

There is not yet a vaccine to protect against the chikugunya virus. Prevention involves reducing the risk of mosquito bites.

To prevent mosquito bites, you can take the following steps:

  • Avoid sources of standing water, such as stagnant ponds or even flowerpots that have collected rain.
  • Use screens, windows, and doors to keep mosquitoes from coming into your home. You also can sleep with mosquito netting over your bed to keep mosquitoes from biting you while you are asleep.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors.
  • Apply insect repellants that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol to protect against mosquitoes. Apply this repellant after any sunscreen.
  • Treat your clothes with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated clothes to protect against mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes tend to bite during the day, so you may wish to avoid spending extended amounts of time outdoors during the day in areas where chikungunya is common.

It is important to take these precautions when traveling to areas of the world where chikungunya is more common. If you do become ill after travel, seek immediate medical help and inform your physician of your previous travels.

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