ABOUT THE VIRUS
• What: Chikungunya (pronounced chik-en-gun-ye)
• Symptoms: Varying degrees of fever, joint and muscle pain, rash and joint swelling
• How it is spread: The Aedes species of mosquitoes, which feed during the day and are abundant in Tennessee, transmit the virus with bites to healthy people.
Tennessee health officials are warning about a painful mosquito-borne illness that is beginning to show up in the state.
The Tennessee Department of Health is investigating the state's first potential cases of chikungunya, a virus transmitted by daytime biting mosquitoes.
Tennesseans showing symptoms of the disease so far have been limited to people who recently traveled to the Caribbean, where the illness is an epidemic with more than 100,000 suspected cases, health officials said.
Deaths are rare, but those at most risk include the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those who have high blood pressure, diabetes and/or heart disease.
"This is often a terribly painful and uncomfortable illness, with no vaccine to prevent it and no specific treatment for those infected," said Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health.
Recovery from the disease can be prolonged, so "prevention is the only good option," he said.
Outbreaks have already occurred in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Indian and Pacific ocean areas. Late last year the virus was found to have spread to the Caribbean.
Health officials aren't just worried about travelers contracting the disease. They are also worried that Tennessee mosquitoes will bite those already infected, picking up the virus and spreading it further.
"It is, unfortunately, probably just a matter of time before we have confirmed cases here," said Dreyzehner.
Abelardo Moncayo, director of the health department's Vector-Borne Diseases program, said the mosquito species that spreads the disease is plentiful in Tennessee.
"It is imperative individuals experiencing symptoms of chikungunya virus minimize their exposure to mosquitoes to reduce risk of local transmission," Moncayo said.
Health department officials are urging doctors and other health providers to contact local health departments if there is a suspect case, and to coordinate testing with the state's lab to pin down whether the infection is associated with travel or local transmission.
State officials also are urging both overseas travelers and those staying home this summer to be more vigilant about protecting themselves against mosquito bites and increase their mosquito bite prevention efforts.