Kentucky health officials await test results on potential cases of chikungunya virus

jwarren@herald-leader.comJune 17, 2014 

Kentucky health officials are awaiting test results that could confirm whether a new mosquito-borne virus from the Caribbean has reached the state.

Confirmation that the chikungunya virus — also known as "chik-v" — is here could come later this week or early next week, said Gwenda Bond, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department for Public Health. The mosquito-borne virus, which causes a fever and severe pain, has affected thousands of people throughout the Caribbean and has made its way to the United States.

Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, the Kentucky state epidemiologist, emphasized that no cases have been confirmed in Kentucky. However, the virus has been identified in some nearby states, including Indiana, he said.

"This is a virus that has been known in Africa for many years, and now is becoming endemic in mosquitoes in the Caribbean," Humbaugh said. "It's not spread from person to person. You have to get it from the bite of an infected mosquito."

Bond said Tuesday that health authorities are looking at several possible cases in Kentucky.

"The instances we're looking at all involve people who have recently traveled in the Caribbean," she said.

Bond did not say how many cases they were investigating or discuss where in the state the cases are. Such details might be released when and if the illness is confirmed, she said. None of the Kentuckians with suspected cases have been hospitalized.

"We are testing them because this is a new virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and the states want to track it," Bond said.

Chikungunya (chik-un-GOON-ya) was first identified in East Africa in the early 1950s.

The virus is transmitted through the bites of various species of mosquitoes, including some found in Kentucky.

A mosquito picks up the virus when it bites someone who is infected, then passes the virus along when it bites someone else.

Chikungunya causes high fever, a rash and intense joint pain, but it is rarely fatal. However, pain can persist for weeks or months in some cases, Humbaugh said.

Symptoms usually appear a few days after a mosquito bite occurs.

Health officials compare the situation to the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, which appeared in New York about 2000 and then moved westward, arriving in Kentucky a few years later.

"I think CDC is thinking that we will see a smattering of cases in people who travel, and that eventually we'll probably start to see some cases here," Bond said. "We do have the kind of mosquitoes that can spread this virus, but the only way for them to get infected is to bite someone who is infected."

There is no vaccine now to prevent chikungunya. Doctors treat symptoms only, Humbaugh said. At this point, he said, the best prevention is to avoid mosquitoes.

"It is not endemic in our mosquito population," Humbaugh said. "That's good news for us, at least for the time being."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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