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Mosquito-borne virus a concern in soggy state

Published:   |   Updated: July 30, 2014 at 11:28 AM

More than a foot of rain fell on the Suncoast in July, four inches more than the average for all of July.

With that comes the usual aggravations: flooded streets, frizzy hair, wet shoes and socks.

And mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes, with their piercing proboscises and unnerving whine, are on the prowl for red-blooded victims. This year, they may leave behind more than an itching welt: It’s called chikungunya.

The virus, which emerged in Africa and over the past couple of years and has spread across the Caribbean, is poised to make its incursion into the continental United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 497 cases reported in the country as of this week.

As of Monday afternoon, three of those are in Pinellas County. Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County confirmed its third chikungunya case in a 38-year-old male who traveled to the Caribbean in July.

The press release Monday states that as of July 19 there have been 87 confirmed travel-associated cases in the state.

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Joel Peralta, who has said he is the third case, is thought to have contracted the virus while visiting the Dominican Republic over the All-Star break earlier this month. Last week, Peralta was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of the symptoms but was reactivated Monday.

Two reported cases, both in South Florida, developed in this country. Neither person had traveled to infected areas, and that’s what worries health officials. Previously, all of the chikungunya cases in Florida were contracted outside of the United States, typically in the Caribbean.

“That is a larger concern for the future of the progress of the disease,” said David Sanders, an associate professor of biology at Purdue University and expert on the chikungunya virus.

“Once it’s here, that means there are mosquitoes in the United States that are now transmitting the virus,” he said. “You only get the disease if you are bitten by a mosquito, and if you’re encountering infected mosquitoes in the United States, it’s going to spread.”

South Florida is the gateway to the Caribbean. In 2013, more than 7 million visitors came from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Florida Department of Health, and in 2011, 13.5 million cruise-ship passengers returned to ports in Florida, including Tampa, after making stops all through the Caribbean.

The virus is spread only by mosquitoes, which can bite an infected person and spread it to the next person on whom they feed. The FDOH-Pinellas press release specifies Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes as the carriers of chikungunya, insects that also transmit the dengue virus.

This year, chikungunya — which is Makonde, a Tanzanian dialect, for “bending-over disease” — won’t infect a lot of people, Sanders said. Next year may be different, he said, predicting the virus will become a problem in Florida and in other parts of the Southeast in the summer.

There is no vaccine for chikungunya because the disease is viral. Medications only treat the symptoms, meaning infected people must allow the disease to run its course. Chikungunya is rarely fatal but takes its toll on a person and can take up to a month for recovery. Symptoms include headaches, rashes, vomiting, exhaustion, and muscle and joint pain.

FDOH-Pinellas officials recommend residents to take preventative measures like applying insect repellent when outdoors and draining standing water around homes to reduce mosquito breeding grounds.

Suncoast News reporter Eric Horchy contributed to this report.