WATCH ABOVE: Christina Stevens takes a look at the Chikungunya Virus – a virus transferred by mosquitoes that can lead to severe joint pain.
If you are heading south this winter, be aware that a mosquito-borne disease has taken hold of much of the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Nearly 900,000 people in the region have been diagnosed with Chikungunya. But the real number may be much higher, according to experts who say many people don’t seek treatment.
Health Canada has reported that so far this year 210 Canadians returning from travels have been diagnosed with the virus. While Chikungunya also exists in parts of Asia and Africa, most of the Canadian cases were from the Caribbean and the Americas.
Chikungunya was first identified in the region about a year ago in Saint Martin. Since then it has spread rapidly, through many of the islands. It appears to have hit the Dominican Republic and Jamaica particularly hard. The Jamaican Prime Minister has declared it a national emergency.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a specialist in tropical diseases at Toronto General Hospital has treated Canadians with the virus.
“People will typically have a fever, they might have a rash or a headache but a very prominent feature of this infection is joint pain,” said Bogoch.
“It’s a diagnosis that’s being made with increasing frequency in travellers to the Caribbean, Central America and South America.”
The fact that 210 Canadians have already been diagnosed this year is significant says Dr. Mike Drebot, who works at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
“We have had more Chikungunya cases than we have ever seen,” said Drebot. “On average we would have a total, maybe 5 to 15 cases a year.”
Complications are rare but infants, seniors and those with underlying health issues are at higher risk.
There is no vaccine, so if you are heading to an affected area, prevention is key.
“That means covering up, making sure you wear long sleeves, stay indoors, stay in air conditioning and wear insect repellent,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, the Associate Medical Doctor of Health for Toronto Public Health.
There have been no cases of Chikungunya originating in Canada. One of the two mosquito species that can carry it is only found in warm climates. However, the other has been moving north, into the northeastern states. That is something Health Canada says it is keeping an eye on.
For many, the worst symptom of Chikungunya is the joint pain.
“I could not get up on my own, I could not sit on my own. I was virtually paralyzed,” said Herbie Miller from his home in Jamaica.
He said after a few days he start to feel better.
“Then it came back like a hurricane.”
After nearly two months, Miller still can’t move his right arm when he wakes up.
He said he now has an idea of what it must be like to feel old.
Chikungunya is not typically life threatening. But doctors encourage anyone who feels ill after returning from the impacted areas to seek medical help for an accurate diagnosis. That’s because the symptoms can be similar to other diseases, like malaria, which do require immediate treatment.
© 2014 Shaw Media