Experts weigh in on new Chikungunya virus
For students returning to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the presence of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry and transmit, such as West Nile virus and Chikungunya, should be cause for precaution, awareness and education.
West Nile and Chikungunya are arthropod-borne viruses, or arboviral, and most commonly spread by infected mosquitoes.
“The thing about arboviruses is that you don’t catch them from other people,” said Dr. Chris S. Hayes, staff physician and acting director of the Office of Student Health Services at UL Lafayette. “You catch them from being bitten by an infected mosquito. So the best epidemiological control of these things is to keep people who are actively infected inside and to kill the mosquitos.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), West Nile was documented in various parts of the world but made its first documented appearance in North America in 1999 and has become endemic to the region in subsequent summers since. West Nile is potentially fatal, and according to the CDC, it may cause febrile illness, encephalitis or meningitis.
Chikungunya, according to the CDC, was first documented in the South and Central Americas in late 2013 and, as of July 17, had its first documented case in the U.S. in Florida. While no known deaths have been attributed to the disease, the resulting fever and accompanying joint pain have been compared to Dengue fever and can be quite debilitating.
According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and the CDC, September and October are when the mosquito population — and consequently incidences of arboviral disease — is at its peak. There have been 80 reported cases of West Nile in Louisiana in 2014 as of Aug. 30, four of them fatal, and 10 reported cases of Chikungunya. The CDC, DHH and UL Lafayette provide services and information that assist the public in diagnosing, treating and preventing these diseases.
Hayes stressed that prevention and containment of the virus is a two-pronged effort — mosquito abatement and quarantine of infected persons. Local and state governments provide a canvassing chemical spray to assist in mosquito abatement, but the human side of monitoring the disease is a personal responsibility, she said.
“You want to kill your mosquito reservoirs,” said Hayes. “You want to drain your standing water, you want to have people spray for mosquitoes, but the only way a mosquito is going to get infected is to bite someone with it (the disease).
“So the other end of that is to identify people who are at risk for having Chikungunya and make them stay home so that they are not outdoors getting bitten by mosquitoes and infecting the mosquitoes.
“What I would recommend — and this is true for any viral illness — if you have a fever, stay home in your house because if it’s airborne, you’re going to get other people sick. If it’s insect-borne and a mosquito bites you — you are going to get other people sick. So, fever plus body aches plus any kind of other symptoms means you should stay home.”
Hayes noted that testing for West Nile and Chikungunya is minimal as the symptoms are common to influenza and the common cold. The best way to contain them is to quarantine those with symptoms and to find out if the patient has traveled to an area where the disease is endemic, but there is no definitive indicator of being infected, she said.
“That’s the problem; we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with the incidents,” said Hayes. “There may be a whole lot more West Nile and Chikungunya out there that was not tested because people just thought they had a little mild flu and did not get a test.”
Hayes and the CDC also recommend preventative measures such as wearing long sleeves and using mosquito repellent to reduce the chances of infection. This is particularly relevant in Louisiana — a state known as “Sportsman’s Paradise”— where portions of the population enjoy outdoor activities that expose them to mosquitoes.
Patrick R. Scallan, epidemiologist and disease intervention specialist for the DHH Office of Public Health, personally suffered from West Nile last year after contracting it while hunting in North Louisiana. He said he now takes several preventative measures when hunting and fishing — including using the chemical product Thermacell to reduce the mosquito population on his land in advance of hunting season and wearing long sleeves when he spends extended time outdoors.
“It was hunting season, and I couldn’t get off the couch,” said Scallan. “I knew something was wrong — I had joint pain and muscle pain all over. My recovery took months — it was not fun.”