(by Loren Grush, FOx News) -- A new disease has hit the Caribbean islands – and experts say it’s only a matter of time before it makes its way to the United States.
The virus is chikungunya, a mosquito-borne illness that causes high fevers and sometimes intense pain. First identified in Tanzania in 1952, chikungunya has mostly remained within Sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia for the past few decades – despite occasional cases appearing in the United States from a returning traveler.
But it all changed in 2013, when health experts found that sustained transmission of the chikungunya virus had occurred in the Caribbean, meaning people on the islands were starting to become infected by local mosquitos. Now the virus is widespread, with up to 17 different countries in the Caribbean reporting cases of the disease.
Given the amount of U.S. travelers who vacation in the tropical islands each year, health experts believe chikungunya will soon spread beyond the Caribbean Sea, setting up shop in its neighboring continents.
“The mosquitos that transmit this infection are pretty widespread around the world, and that’s why the infection has been able to spread across the tropical Pacific and now into the Caribbean,” Dr. Jorge Parada, medical director of the infection prevention program at Loyola University, Chicago, and medical spokesperson for the National Pest Management Association, told FoxNews.com. “And there’s absolutely no reason why this infection can’t spread to more of South America and the southern United States.”
Parada noted that chikungunya’s spread likely reflects the increased mobility of people today, as well as the changing climate, which has caused many plants, animals and insects to change the ranges of their habitats to accommodate the warmer weather.
Given chikungunya’s inevitable crossover to America, here’s what you need to know about the virus – and how you can protect yourself from infection.