Chikungunya fever: Be aware, but do not panic

Sports Editor

It may not be deadly like West Nile, but Chikungunya Fever is a potentially serious threat to Wichita, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Two cases have been confirmed in the Sedgwick County, both being adults who recently returned from trips outside the country.

“They both recently traveled from the Caribbean and that’s where they were infected,” Christine Steward, Epidemiologist with the Sedgwick County Health Department said.

The virus was first established in the western hemisphere on St. Maarten, an island in the Caribbean, in December 2013. Since then, it has infected more than 260,000 people, but it is not clear whether the virus-carrying mosquitoes could be headed north.

Additional cases in the U.S. among travelers returning from these countries have been identified in several states, including Kansas. The virus has infected people in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As the mosquitoes travel, the risk of human contraction of the disease increases, and state health officials want to warn travelers to take the necessary precautions.

“Chikungunya virus can be a serious and debilitating disease, and we want travelers to be aware,” Secretary and State Health Officer Dr. Robert Moser said. “It is important for persons traveling to countries where Chikungunya virus infections are currently reported, to take appropriate precautions to prevent exposures to mosquito bites.”

The virus comes from infected mosquitos and causes several symptoms including fever, joint pain, rashes and fatigue. Those symptoms may not appear for three to seven days, and joint pain can persist for the rest of a person’s life. Some health workers worry that people who might be infected are assuming their symptoms are something else.

“Symptoms can be severe and a lot of people put it off as a severe case of the flu because the symptoms are similar,” Camille Childers, Director of Student Health at Wichita State said.

There is a growing concern among public health workers that Chikungunya Fever could show up in the local mosquito populations and could pose additional risks to those in the community.

“Experts are concerned that those infected in other countries, the Caribbean countries, will come back here,” Steward said. “Then, a mosquito that can carry the virus will bite them and then become infected with that virus and start spreading it in the United States.”

Students have also voiced concern, after West Nile Virus wreaked havoc on the state in recent years. Kimberly McCallister, an incoming student at WSU says she knows the pain West Nile can cause, and people should be wary of their outdoor activities.

“I’m terrified now,” McCallister said. “My friend’s father died from West Nile last year here in Wichita. Now I am scared of my kids getting sick. Normally, I’m all about my kids playing outside but not after all this rain.”

WSU has protocol in place, should a student return to campus infected by the disease.

“If any student comes in and they present symptoms like a fever or a rash, we take them to a separate room and not let them wait in the waiting room,” Childers said. “Anything that is potentially infectious, we have them wait in an exam room.”

The disease is incurable, and there are currently no medications to treat it. Doctors have not developed vaccines to combat the virus, and everyone has the risk of contracting it if bitten by an infected mosquito. At this point, health workers say trying to make a patient comfortable is the only measure doctors can take once a person is infected.

“We would treat the symptoms, and give medication to lower the fever, encourage them to drink to stay hydrated give medicines like Tylenol and ibuprofen to help with joint pain,” Childers said.  

She says prevention is the best way for a person to protect themselves from becoming infected. By using bug sprays with the chemical DEET, wearing long-sleeved clothing and pants and clearing out all standing water, people can lower their chances of getting bitten by an infected mosquito.

“Basically, the prevention to use is to try to avoid mosquito bites.” Childers said. “If you have your windows open, make sure you have screens, or remove any kind of standing water from your yard, or if there’s standing water in a bucket, and make sure you put on that DEET.”

Health officials are keeping a close eye on the disease and tracking its migration in the U.S. Steward says there is a threat of disease with any mosquito.

“Even though Chikungunya is not currently in mosquitoes here in Sedgwick County, West Nile could be,” Steward said. “We haven’t found any mosquitoes that are positive for West Nile yet. However, we know that West Nile comes every year.”

If students begin to show symptoms of Chikungunya Fever, Student Health Services is prepared to handle their symptoms. Childers says it is important people seek medical care, and to be aware, but not anxious about the disease.

“A lot of patients with this virus will feel better on their own,” Childers said. “People should not panic because they get a mosquito bite. There is a lot of mosquito bites that have nothing to do with this disease. So it’s important to use common sense.”