Chikungunya Facts

Feb. 24, 2015, 8:14 a.m.

Fear the mosquito. But don’t be afraid to head south.

The Globe and Mail’s travel desk gets regular inquiries from readers about hotel, travel apps and suggested destinations. One recent letter was from a reader worried about the chikungunya virus.

Chikungunya is a disease borne by mosquitoes that can have a serious effect on humans, leading to arthritis-like aches and rashes. It’s not unlike dengue fever. The World Health Organization says symptoms usually last two or three days and the virus stays in the body for five-to-seven days. It’s a big concern for some travellers since there is no vaccine or medication that can prevent the virus from taking hold.

The reader writes: “I have read all the CDC [U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention] reports on the spread of this disease and am seriously thinking about whether the risk to travel to a tropical beach is worth it. Are all Caribbean/southern vacation destinations created equal when it comes to chikungunya, or are some islands safer than others?”

I spoke about chikungunya at length with Erin Staples, an MD, PhD and medical epidemiologist at the CDC office in Fort Collins, Colo. And I reviewed Canadian and American medical and government websites, then checked information on the World Health Organization’s site.

The bad news is the virus is spreading and the CDC’s watch list includes warnings for just about every corner in the Caribbean. The list also includes pretty much all of Central America and a good deal of northern South America, but not Chile, Argentina or Uruguay. Also on the list are Samoa and French Polynesia. There are some reports in Mexico, but there don’t appear to be any reported problems at this time along the popular Riviera Maya.

The World Health Organization says the virus, first identified in 1952 in Tanzania, has been found in 60 countries around the world. There have been recorded cases of the virus being imported to Canada, the United States and southern Europe, too. Staples says there is a chance that a traveller, who has been infected on vacation, might be bitten by a mosquito at home. That mosquito could then become a carrier and spread the virus.

According to Staples, the Pan American Health Organization reports 1.2 million documented cases in the Americas where folks have joint pain and fever. Those are suspected cases. Of course, some people infected might not have symptoms and some with symptoms might not report them. Cuba hasn’t reported any cases, but Staples said that sounds odd to her since the virus appears to be all around the Caribbean – 26 countries in all according to the latest CDC charts.

The World Health Organization reports some 176 deaths worldwide from chikungunya until Jan. 1 this year. Some of those people undoubtedly had underlying health issues.

The government of Canada travel warning website (travel.gc.ca) has chikungunya at a Level 1 warning: “The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that travellers protect themselves from mosquito bites when travelling to areas where chikungunya may occur.”

The CDC also suggests visitors “practice usual precautions” during visits to countries where chikungunya is present.

What are the “usual precautions”? Since mosquitoes that carry chikungunya are active during the day and in urban settings, don’t think you only need bug spray at the beach or just at dusk. Wearing long-sleeve shirts, pants and caps can help protect against bites. Visitors should also put sunscreen on first, and then DEET insect repellent on top of that. Older travellers, and those with heart disease or other health issues should particularly exercise caution, Staples said.

I asked Dan Young, a public relations representative for Starwood Hotels (Westin, Sheraton, W Brands and many others) what they were doing, specifically in the Caribbean.

“We understand that there is some concern about chikungunya, but please know that all Starwood hotels and resorts in the Caribbean are diligently taking precautions to provide a safe environment for our guests and associates,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This includes but is not limited to, spraying BTI [Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis] multiple times a day to limit mosquitoes in the area and placing mosquito magnets throughout property grounds.”

The good news is that this isn’t at any kind of Ebola-like crisis level. At the end of the day, Staples said the CDC’s Level 1 warning is there to let travellers know they should take precautions and keep chikungunya in mind.

“At Level 1 we’re saying it’s something to be aware of. But it’s not a reason not to travel.”

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