Chikungunya fever and the Asian tiger mosquito: two names you may not know, but which could soon threaten your health.
In Swahili, “chikungunya” it means “walking bent over,” referring to the fact that those who contract the disease often have trouble walking due to headaches, rashes, fevers and, most of all, paralyzing joint pain.
Before late last year, the disease was concentrated in Africa and Asia, but now it threatens American shores as a mosquito that carries it, the Asian tiger mosquito, is expanding as far north as New York and Chicago.
There is no cure for the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and while cases are rarely fatal, thousands have contracted the disease and a few have died since the first locally-acquired case popped up in the Caribbean in December 2013.
The CDC report 129 cases of the disease in the U.S. so far this year, though outside of Puerto Rico, all of those cases were contracted abroad and brought into the country.
But as Asian tiger mosquitos spread, so too could chikungunya fever.
“Pieces are falling into place for a historic epidemic on U.S. shores,” a trio of Yale University professors wrote in a recent CNN column.
Asian tiger mosquitoes are opportunistic; they breed nearly anywhere. Unlike most other mosquitoes, they bite all day long. Nor do they mind having their blood meal interrupted by an attempted swatting. They just fly off to other victims and increase the odds of spreading disease.
Arriving in Texas in the mid-1980s, Asian tiger mosquitoes spread northward to their ecological limit where annual average temperatures are 50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer — a boundary that runs more or less through New York City. Indeed, New York health officials are monitoring Asian tiger mosquitoes in 61 locations across the city’s five boroughs. The mosquito is abundant in the Washington, D.C., area.
The Asian tiger mosquito is also adapting its behavior and is able to ignore the onset of autumn, postpone hibernation, and extend its egg-laying season. More time to breed allows more Asian tiger mosquitoes in northern latitudes, just as one of the worst diseases they can carry arrived near U.S. shores.