Originally published February 27, 2015
By Nadia M. Whitehead
UTEP News Service
A virus that originated in sub-Saharan Africa now threatens the health of U.S.-Mexico border communities.
Dubbed chikungunya (pronounced chicken-goon-yuh), the mosquito-borne virus has crept northward toward the U.S. border since its arrival in the Caribbean in 2013; its spread into the U.S. seems inevitable.
“I would be very surprised if chikungunya isn’t in the Rio Grande Valley by next summer,” virologist Scott Weaver, Ph.D., told a group of mosquito experts at The University of Texas at El Paso on Feb. 23.
Weaver, who runs the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), spoke at a conference spearheaded by UTEP; its focus was the border states’ preparedness, surveillance and control efforts of chikungunya.
The two-day meeting on Feb. 23 and 24 attracted experts from across the U.S. who are at the forefront of research related to chikungunya. Attendees included scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Army and the Arizona Department of Health Sciences.
The meeting was the brainchild of UTEP researcher Doug Watts, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert on mosquitoes and the viruses they transmit.
“We are threatened by a disease that can have a devastating impact,” said Watts, who co-directs the infectious disease and immunology cluster. “We all need to organize to respond effectively when chikungunya is introduced to the border community.”
Named after a term that means “to become contorted,” chikungunya can cause hunched posture with debilitating, often chronic arthritis in severe cases. Other symptoms include fever, rash and joint and muscle pain.
The conference addressed a number of aspects related to the devastating disease, such as its impact on health care in the Americas, the species of mosquitoes that can carry and transmit chikungunya and how the disease can be easily confused with other illnesses.
“Border health care professionals need to be on guard,” Watts said. “Dengue, influenza, arthritis, the flu and even a cold could mimic chikungunya.”
Roger Nasci, Ph.D., chief of the Arboviral Diseases Branch at the CDC, was among the many speakers at the meeting. His presentation included a number of ways Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas can prepare for the potential epidemic.
“Having UTEP coordinate and sponsor this meeting for the region – not just Texas – but for all four border states, is a real opportunity,” Nasci said. “We can share some critical information and bring the appropriate people together to discuss a regional response to this developing cross-border problem.”
Nasci encouraged listeners to devote their efforts to increasing both physician and public awareness about chikungunya. He mentioned multiple resources that the CDC has created about the disease, such as posters that read “Keep Calm and Wear Insect Repellant” and flyers to educate the public. These are free and available for download on the government agency’s Public Health Publications website.
The CDC chief also stressed the importance of identifying mosquito hotspots and sources that are unique to each region and investigating any insecticide resistance patterns.
After academics and state and government officials – such as entomologists, public health specialists and pest management coordinators – presented research updates and experiences with chikungunya, attendees spent an entire day brainstorming and developing a regional surveillance and response plan to best tackle the impending issue.
Objectives included discussions on how to improve diagnostic and surveillance capacity and how to best expand training for health care providers in recognizing and managing chikungunya cases.
Weaver, who used to work with Watts at UTMB, said he was glad to see the initiative UTEP was taking on the disease, and that the list of attendees was so broad.
“This is the first conference I know of in the U.S. to focus on chikungunya along the border,” he said “There are various international and national meetings but none focus where I think we are going to have the biggest problem: the border. The other thing that is unique is that usually academic researchers like myself just get together with other academic people; rarely do we get the chance to talk to people who are on the ground trying to control these diseases.”
The meeting was supported by UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research Center and a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
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