K-State researcher has spent years studying latest mosquito-borne virus

07/09/2014 10:38 AM

07/09/2014 6:22 PM

As a world expert on the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus, Stephen Higgs can explain what we need to know:

The illness has come to Kansas with two cases being reported in Sedgwick County this month.

It probably won’t kill you.

“But you really, really don’t want this illness.”

Higgs directs the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University. Beyond directing the institute, in his own scientific work, he’s spent 10 years studying chikungunya, contributing work toward what he says is promising research regarding a vaccine. An approved, commercial vaccine is not yet ready, he said.

Preventing the illness is basic, he said: “Don’t get bitten by mosquitoes.”

But if it spreads, as it has spread in India, Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and other places, it could upset lives on a massive scale. The name is an African Makonde word that means “to bend up,” with intense joint and body pain.

“It can be devastating to entire populations,” Higgs said. Three million people in India have had it, he said.

“We were studying it before it became popular, meaning well-known, and we’ve seen epidemics, for example in the Indian Ocean, where it basically spread through the French territories and affected a third of the local populations – 266,000 people in that area.”

About 100 people have contracted the illness in the United States so far, most while traveling, Kansas State said in a prepared statement.

Two people from Sedgwick County who recently traveled separately to the Caribbean were diagnosed with chikungunya, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said.

The danger here will be if infected travelers come home, get bitten, and infect local mosquitoes who could then spread the illness widely.

That kind of thing happened recently, Higgs said, when a person from Asia stopped over in Italy. People in several Italian villages became ill.

The virus causes fever and joint pain, along with headaches, rash and muscle pain. The percentage of fatalities per infections is small – worldwide, hundreds have died where many millions have become ill.

“In the recent outbreak in the Caribbean, there were 21 deaths and a quarter-million infected,” he said. He sees two concerns about that outbreak: A lot of people travel for vacations to the Caribbean. And a Caribbean outbreak “brings it much closer to the U.S. than before.”

It can knock people down for weeks or months at a time, Higgs said.

He’s keeping a close watch on it. The institute he directs works to perfect research, education and training related to pathogens transmitted to people, plants, animals and food. Chikungunya isn’t the only mosquito-borne virus his people are studying; there are more ugly bugs out there.

Preventing chikungunya means following the basics, he said. Fifty or so species of mosquitoes annoy us in Kansas, Higgs said. Two are known to spread chikungunya.

Avoid them all. Avoid going outside at dusk or dawn, when mosquitoes are more likely to fly.

“Wear insect repellent, things with DEET, which is good for all ages,” he said. “Eliminate areas where mosquitoes are breeding.”

Drain standing water such as puddles, discarded cans, tires, cups and plant trays.

Call a doctor if you think you have the virus.

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