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Florida Officials Warn About Painful New Virus

Florida health officials issued a warning on Friday about chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus that’s spreading across the Caribbean.

Three cases of the disease have been found in Florida, so far only in travelers, the Florida Department of Health said. But infected people can spread the disease when they are bitten by mosquitoes, and Florida is swarming with the right kind of mosquitoes to spread it.

“The Department has received three reports of imported cases of chikungunya fever to Florida from travelers who recently traveled to the Caribbean,” the health department said on its website. The three cases are in Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough Counties.

Image: Asian Tiger Mosquito
An Asian Tiger mosquito feeds. The mosquitoes can carry chikungunya, a painful virus that's shown up in Florida travelrs three times so far. Getty Images / New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board via Getty Images file

Chikungunya is not usually deadly, but it can cause a very bad headache, joint pain, rash and fever. Its name in the Makonde language, spoken in Tanzania and Mozambique in Africa, means “that which bends up,” because patients are often contorted with pain.

Chikungunya has been spreading out of Africa into the Indian Ocean region, Asia and Europe in recent years. So far, more than 100 travelers have carried it into the U.S. but it hasn’t spread. However, West Nile virus, also carried by mosquitoes, came to the U.S. in 1999 and is now established across North America.

A study last year predicted that it’s possible a single, infected person could start an outbreak of chikungunya in New York once Asian tiger mosquitoes become more common in the city. They are already common across the southern half of the United States.

“Symptoms of chikungunya usually begin 3-7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito and can include fever and severe joint pains often in hands and feet,” the health department said.

“With a large number of people traveling to and from the Caribbean in Florida we have been monitoring for possible imported cases,” said Dr. Carina Blackmore, deputy state epidemiologist. “We encourage all Floridians to practice the drain and cover method to minimize mosquito exposure.”