NIAID health officials warn of possible U.S. chikungunya threat

Health officials from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) recently issued a warning about the potential for the emergence of the chikungunya virus in the U.S.

In a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci and David Morens, a senior adviser at NIAID, said the virus could become firmly established in the West, citing a growing number of cases in the Americas, according to a NIAID press release.

Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness first identified in 1952 in what is now Tanzania, causes fever, muscle and joint pain, lymphopenia and a rash. The disease is especially dangerous to babies and the elderly.

The virus was detected in the Caribbean late last year and has infected at least 355,000 people in more than 20 countries across the Americas. This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 232 cases in travelers visiting or returning to the U.S. from affected regions.

Fauci and Morens said the recent growing epidemic in the America is cause for concern, citing the potential for the virus to become adapted to the ecosystem in the West, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

They said antiviral agents and treatments for the virus are still in early testing, and vaccine approval in the near future is unlikely.

"Thus, the current chikungunya threat to the United States must be met primarily with standard public health approaches such as mosquito control and avoidance," Fauci and Morens said, the New England Journal of Medicine reports. "In addition, there is an important role for astute clinicians in diagnosing and reporting the disease when it occurs. In the meantime, we can only keep our fingers crossed-painful as that would be for many people infected with chikungunya-that the Caribbean epidemic will decline and the virus will depart from the Western Hemisphere, as it may have done nearly two centuries ago."