Painful Virus Sweeps Central America, Gains A Toehold In U.S. : Goats and Soda While some Americans worried that Ebola would spread around the U.S., a new mosquito-borne virus flew right in. It sickened more than 2,000 Americans and nearly a million people across the Caribbean.

Painful Virus Sweeps Central America, Gains A Toehold In U.S.

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Last year, while people were worried about Ebola spreading in the U.S., a different, new virus flew right in and made itself at home. Lindsay Lohan just tweeted that she'd gotten it, so now it's definitely a thing. The virus is called - actually, we'll let NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff tell you how to pronounce its name.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: OK, the virus that were talking about - there's no easy way to say it, but you start off with...


DOUCLEFF: Chicken, like chickens that you eat. The middle part kind of sounds like goon - you know, the '80s movie "The Goonies."


CINDI LAUPER: (Singing) Good enough.

DOUCLEFF: And then you just end it like a karate chop.



DOUCLEFF: Chicken, goon, ya. But Ann Powers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says chikungunya has nothing to do with chickens or "The Goonies" - clearly. The name dates back to the 1950s, when the chikungunya was first detected in eastern Africa. The virus didn't kill people, but it caused excruciating joint pain.

ANN POWERS: People were in such pain that they couldn't stand up. They were hunched over. And that's actually where the name came from. Chikungunya basically means that which stoops over.

DOUCLEFF: For 50 years, chikungunya stayed mostly in Africa. But then in 2004, it went on a world tour. Chikungunya spreads by mosquitoes. And the virus hopped across to India and caused a massive outbreak.

POWERS: From there, it basically exploded and went everywhere.

DOUCLEFF: It went to Thailand, Indonesia, then to Taiwan, Italy and France. But during all of this time, the Western Hemisphere remained free of chikungunya until December 2013.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER: The Public Health Department has announced that a vector-borne illness seen widely in the Eastern Hemisphere has reached the Caribbean.

DOUCLEFF: A few dozen cases of chikungunya cropped up on the island of St. Martin. By February, there were thousands of cases across the Caribbean, hundreds of thousands by June. And in July...


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER: We're just getting word of our first locally transmitted case of the chikungunya virus in Florida.

DOUCLEFF: The U.S. ended up with more than 2000 cases of chikungunya in 2014. New York state alone had more than 500. All these people got infected outside the U.S. and brought the disease here with them. But in Florida, mosquitoes are now carrying the virus, which means it's spreading inside the state. And at least 11 people caught chikungunya in Florida. Now, that's not many.

WALTER TABACHNICK: But we're worried about this. All of the blocks are falling into place. You got to be worried about this.

DOUCLEFF: That's Walter Tabachnick. He runs the Medical Mosquito Lab at the University of Florida. Tabachnick says Florida and parts of the southern U.S. have all the right ingredients for a huge outbreak, including a constant flow of travelers from Central America. Mexico just reported its first case of chikungunya in November.

TABACHNICK: There is very little predictability, but would 50,000 or 100,000 cases be surprising? I don't know. I don't think so. I wouldn't be surprised.

DOUCLEFF: There's no vaccine or cure for chikungunya. Painkillers are the only treatment for it. Some people end up with joint pain for months or even a year. Tabachnick says the take-home message is twofold - clean up your yard, get rid of all standing water where mosquitoes grow and...

TABACHNICK: Stay tuned. We're not through with this. There will be other cases.

DOUCLEFF: Because here in the U.S., chikungunya is just getting started. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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