Catching the mosquito-borne virus chikungunya usually leads to fever and severe pain, but a new study shows it may also lead to inflammation in the brain, and even death in some people.
In a new study published in the journal Neurology
on Nov. 25, researchers looked at the 2005-2006 chikungunya outbreak that sickened over 300,000 people. The epidemic occurred on Reunion Island, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
‘Infection caused by chikungunya virus may result in potentially fatal brain inflammation, with infants and older adults being the most vulnerable to this risk.’
As a result of their infections, 24 people developed encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain, and four of those people died from their infection.
"Since there is no vaccine to prevent chikungunya and no medicine to treat it, people who are traveling to these areas should be aware of this infection and take steps to avoid mosquito bites, such as wearing repellent and long sleeves and pants if possible," said Dr. Patrick Gérardin of Central University Hospital in Saint Pierre, Reunion Island, who led the study.
The virus only arrived in the Western Hemisphere in December 2013, on St. Martin. But it spread fast and has been found as far north as Florida and across Central and South America.
Chikungunya is a re-emerging virus that has expanded from Indian Ocean locations like Reunion Island into areas closer to the United States, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh's UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore.
The most common symptoms of chikungunya infection are fever and joint pain, researchers said in background material. Most people recover within a week, but for some the joint pain can continue for months and even years.
Researchers identified people who developed central nervous system disease as a result of their chikungunya infection. The patients were followed to see if they were still affected three years later. The overall incidence rate for chikungunya-associated encephalitis was 8.6 cases per 100,000 people, the researchers found.