Chikungunya virus spreads to U.S., Cuba

Photo: CNN

(CNN) — Health officials are reporting new cases of the chikungunya virus in Cuba and the United States. The debilitating virus has been spreading in the Caribbean through infected mosquitoes since December, according to the World Health Organization.

On Thursday, the Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed the state’s first case of chikungunya. Health officials say the patient was infected during a recent trip to a Caribbean nation. Recent cases have also been reported in North Carolina and Tennessee, with a total of 57 infections reported to the CDC this year, according to a CDC spokesperson.

Six chikungunya infections have also been documented in Cuba,according to a local paper, which references the Cuban Ministry of Public Health. The paper says the patients were frequent travelers to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Close to 5,000 chikungunya cases have been confirmed in the Caribbean this year, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PDF); more than 160,000 cases are suspected. Locales with the virus include the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Experts say American tourists are bringing chikungunya back home, and it’s just a matter of time before it starts to spread within the United States.

New to the Americas, the virus, which causes fever and joint pain that can become chronic, has no cure or vaccine.

Preventing mosquito bites is key to avoiding infection. Experts offer these basic tips:

• Use bug spray if you are going out, especially in tropical or wooded areas near water.

• Get rid of standing water; empty plastic pools, flower pots and pet dishes so mosquitoes don’t breed in them.

• Dress appropriately in long sleeves and pants.

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