Caribbean officials warn of virus outbreak

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The first known outbreak of the chikungunya virus in the Western Hemisphere has Caribbean governments working to prevent the disease from spreading and damaging the region’s tourism-dependent economies.

About 280 cases of chikungunya, which can cause severe joint pain, fever and headaches, have been reported since early December in Dutch and French Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the British Virgin Islands and French Guyana. Officials from Venezuela to the Cayman Islands have warned of the potential for the mosquito-borne virus, first identified from a patient in Tanzania in 1953, to spread. There is no treatment and the illness is rarely fatal.

“The worst-case scenario would be that the impact would be significant and slow down the whole economy in the Caribbean,” James Hospedales, the executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, said by telephone. “The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world so if it spreads like wildfire you could scare away tourists.”

Caribbean economies suffered in the aftermath of the global financial crisis as tourism declined and destinations including Jamaica and Grenada struggled under debt loads that exceeded 100 percent of gross domestic product. With economies in North America and Europe rebounding, regional leaders are counting on increased tourism to boost growth.

Radisson Hotels International’s Blu resort and spa on the French side of Saint Martin, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Puerto Rico, is offering complimentary mosquito repellent in every room due to the outbreak, concierge Claudette Davis said. The island’s tourism board is working with authorities on the Dutch side, known as Sint Maarten, to ensure visitors are aware of the outbreak and how to avoid it from the moment they arrive, said director Silviane John.

“We’re working closely with them to try to disseminate as much information as possible to airports, hotels and everyone over the radio, TV, newspapers and newsletters,” John said, adding that it is safe to travel to the island.

While chikungunya is a recent arrival to the region, the Caribbean and Central America have a bigger problem with dengue, which can be fatal and is transmitted by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito. About 79,000 cases of dengue were reported in the Caribbean last year, including 141 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The Dominican Republic accounted for 111 of those fatalities. Approximately 400 million people worldwide suffer from dengue each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

“Governments in this region spend tens of millions of dollars every year to educate people and conduct mosquito control operations,” said Hospedales, adding that researchers may never know how chikungunya first arrived. “It’s important to strike a balance without causing alarm” in terms of warning people about the virus, he added.

Until its appearance in the Caribbean, the disease was more commonly seen in Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

If a person infected with chikungunya travels back from the Caribbean and is bitten by another mosquito, there’s a possibility the virus could spread further into new areas, said Roger Nasci, chief of the CDC’s arboviral diseases research branch.

“We’re confident that if the virus establishes itself and spreads in the Caribbean and adjacent countries, we will see the introduction of chikungunya through infected travelers,” Nasci said. “Whether it will set up local transmission, maybe eventually, but it’s hard to know the scale.”

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