Hospitals and clinics throughout the Caribbean are seeing thousands of patients, all suffering from the same symptoms: searing headaches, a burning fever and so much pain in their joints they can barely walk or use their hands. It's like having a terrible flu combined with an abrupt case of arthritis.
Chikungunya -- an African word that loosely translates as "contorted with pain" -- has spread rapidly by mosquitoes across the islands after the first locally transmitted case was confirmed in December French St. Martin.
"You feel it in your bones, your fingers and your hands. It's like everything is coming apart," said 34-year-old Sahira Francisco as she and her daughter waited for treatment at a hospital in San Cristobal, a town in the southern Dominican Republic that has seen a surge of the cases in recent days.
The Pan American Health Organization reports more than 55,000 suspected and confirmed cases since December throughout the islands. It has also reached French Guiana, the first confirmed transmission on the South American mainland.
Chikungunya, first identified in Africa in 1953, is rarely fatal but it is extremely debilitating. The Pan American Health Organization says seven people in the Caribbean with chikungunya have died during the outbreak but they had underlying health issues that likely contributed to their death.
Outbreaks of the virus have long made people miserable in Africa and Asia. But it is new to the Caribbean, likely brought in by an infected air traveler. The only other notable outbreak occurred in northern Italy, in 2007.
There have been no confirmed cases of local transmission of chikungunya on the U.S. mainland, but experts say the high number of travelers to the region means that could change as early as this summer. So far, there are no signs the virus is keeping visitors away, though some Caribbean officials warn it might if it is not controlled.
"It's building up like a snowball because of the constant movement of people," said Jacqueline Medina, a specialist at the Instituto Technologico university in the Dominican Republic, where some hospitals report more than 100 new cases per day.
The virus is spread by two species of mosquitoes, aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus. It's also a traveler-borne virus under the right circumstances. Typically, it takes five days before symptoms of the virus emerge.
"The evidence suggests that once you get it and recover, once your immune system clears the virus you are immune for life," said Dr. Roger Nasci, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials are now working feverishly to educate the public about the illness, knock down the mosquito population, and deal with an onslaught of cases. Authorities are attempting to control mosquitoes throughout the Caribbean, from dense urban neighborhoods to beach resorts.
"It is terrible, I have never in my life gotten such an illness," said Maria Norde, a 66-year-old woman confined to bed at her home on the lush eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. "All my joints are in pain."
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