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Travelling South? Beware The Chikungunya Virus

01/11/2015 10:17 EST | Updated 03/13/2015 05:59 EDT
SeanPavonePhoto via Getty Images

If the advertisements on television are any indication, this is high time for travel to Central America and the Caribbean. Each year, over a million Canadians head down to these ocean-rimmed paradises in search of solace from the wretched winter weather. The lure is understandable as these destinations offer not only the chance to enjoy the calmer climes but also to wind down from the wear and tear of daily life.

Yet, as with any international travel, health risks are associated with these getaways. Most people already know of concerns related to water (don't drink it unless it's bottled), food (always eat cooked foods and only fresh fruits and vegetables that can be peeled), and of course social interactions (always practice safe hedonism). Yet, another threat has emerged over the last year, which can leave you pained both during the visit and possibly over the long term.

The illness is called Chikungunya (pronounced chick-uhn-guhn-ya) and is derived from the African Makonde language meaning "to become contorted" or "to walk bent over." As the name implies, the disease is manifested through the development of muscle and joint pains although this isn't the only symptom. Fevers, the need to stay bent over (prostration), and a rash also have been seen.

The infection typically lasts for only a few weeks, but up to 20 per cent suffer arthritis-like symptoms for weeks, months or even years. Although death can happen, it is quite rare and usually only occurs in newborns, the elderly and those with other medical complications such as pneumonia, diabetes and cardiac conditions. As with many viral infections, there is no specific treatment other than rest, fluids and time.

The cause of this disease is viral and named appropriately, Chikungunya virus. It was first isolated in what is now Tanzania in 1952 and has since been fully studied by microbiologists worldwide. The virus is known as an arbovirus, which simply means it can only be transmitted to humans through insects. In the case of this virus, the bite of an infected mosquito is known to lead to this painful condition. A number of different mosquito species can carry the virus, most of which find humans to be perfect food sources.

Once the virus enters the bloodstream, it undergoes a rather complex process of infection in which the virus spreads to the skin, the lymph nodes, the spleen, the liver, the muscles and most importantly, the joints. Only then does the immune system begin to fight leading to unfortunate damage to the body, including the rash, the fever and the arthritis-like pain. When the virus is eliminated, an individual can go back to normal yet the time for clearance differs depending on the location in the body. Unfortunately for those joints, the infection seems to last significantly longer leading to the potential for chronic discomfort.

For the most part, the majority of people in Canada would not have heard of this virus; it was typically located only in Africa and South East Asia. Yet, in December of 2013, the virus somehow emerged on St. Martin and began to spread like a wildfire. Within a few months, the virus had spread extensively such that thousands of people were afflicted. But the virus wasn't going to stay isolated. It spread to other regions of the Caribbean as well as the Americas.

By the end of 2014 -- in just one year -- almost a million people had been afflicted. Even more distressing was the confirmation in the summer that the virus had made it to the United States with people becoming locally infected. Public health officials have had no choice but to warn travelers to any of the affected regions of the Americas including the American deep south. Thankfully, in the more northern regions, including Canada, Chikungunya has yet to arrive primarily due to the fact the mosquitoes up here are not capable of carrying the virus.

For travelers to these affected regions, a new set of precautions are needed to prevent infection. Thankfully, they are not overly restrictive in terms of enjoying one's activities. The primary need is to prevent mosquito bites as they are the only way the virus can infect. This means wearing light-coloured, loose fitting clothing, keeping a hat with you, and perhaps the most frustrating of all, wearing shoes or boots instead of sandals. Using insect repellent is also a good idea if it is available. If staying indoors, make sure windows have a screen and are not infested. If the environment is in the open-air, make sure to have a mosquito screen to prevent those night-time bites.

If you do happen to be bitten by a mosquito, don't panic. Simply pay attention to your well-being and record any changes in your health. Though you may not need immediate medical attention, it is good to have a list of symptoms written down. That way, upon your return, you can inform a medical professional -- preferably one specializing in travel -- about what happened so you can be monitored.

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