Health Officials Prepare for a Possible New Mosquito Virus

The mosquitoes that carry the new virus are black with white stripes and bite during the day.
The mosquitoes that carry the new virus are black with white stripes and bite during the day.

You could be dealing with a mosquito-virus one-two punch this season. Along with West Nile, a new virus could rear its ugly head in Texas. It's name is chikungunya, and it's pronounced "chicken-goon-ya."

This mosquito season already has one twist to it. Because of the drought, mosquitoes that carry West Nile could be stronger and more persistent, which means the chances of them passing the virus could be higher. Now, add another: The mosquitoes that carry chikungunya are different from those that pass West Nile.

While both types are present in Dallas, West Nile mosquitoes bite at night. The mosquitoes that carry chikungunya bite during the day, which poses some new problems for county health officials.

To combat West Nile, the county is able to send trucks with mosquito spray around at night. This method is not effective for the chikungunya virus, said Erikka Neroes, Dallas County's health and human services' public relations officer. Even though the same type of spray works for both kinds of mosquitoes, more people are out during the day. The wind is also a factor, Neroes told Unfair Park.

The county is developing a plan for the new virus. It is "very likely" that county employees will spray for mosquitoes from the ground while the sun shines, Neroes told us. And traps for the chikungunya mosquitoes have been ordered. Unlike the traps for West Nile, these traps have a white-and-black color scheme and a human scent that attracts the mosquitoes. (West Nile traps use standing water and a night light.)

As of June 24 this year, 88 human cases of the chikungunya virus have been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None have been reported in Texas, but county officials have told doctors to keep their eyes open for symptoms, most often fever and joint pain.

Dr. Joon Lee of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth said the virus might be hard to hard for doctors to spot, though, because the two viruses have similar symptoms.

On Tuesday night, city trucks sprayed in five ZIP codes and will do so again Wednesday night.

Unlike West Nile, which can be passed from birds to humans, chikungunya is only passed from human to human. A mosquito will bite an infected human and then bite another, passing the virus. The incubation time of chikungunya is three to seven days. West Nile is five to 15, Lee said.

The type of mosquito that carries chikungunya also carries dengue in tropical environments, such as Latin America and Southeast Asia, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Dengue is not a problem in the United States. Chikungunya is rarely fatal, but the pain it produces could last for months, according to the CDC.

If you haven't been infected with the virus, you're susceptible, especially, just like with West Nile, if you're an infant or over 65 years old. However, according to the 2011 report, researchers believe that once exposed to the virus, you'll develop "long lasting" immunity against being infected again.

Between 1995 and 2005, three travelers returning to the United States were found to have the new virus, according to the 2011 report. Between 2006 and 2010, that number jumped to 106.

The virus could date back the 1700s, but it was first identified in the early 1950s during an outbreak in Tanzania. In the 1960s and 1970s, the virus spread from rural Asia to cities. In the mid-2000s, about 500,000 cases popped up on islands in the Indian Ocean. The virus spread to the Indian mainland soon after, affecting nearly 1.5 million people. There have been outbreaks across Africa, and the virus recently appeared in Italy and France. It then showed up in the Caribbean in late 2013, carried by travelers, according to the CDC.

Lee told Unfair Park the number of cases in the United States could very well increase with people taking vacations to the Caribbean during the summer.

The best way to protect yourself from chikungunya is the same way you'd protect yourself from West Nile. Use DEET whenever you're outside. Wear pants and long-sleeves. Remember: These mosquitoes are daytime biters. And run your A/C; otherwise your house could be a mosquito hotel.

Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.

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