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Brazil Facing New, More Contagious Mutation of Crippling African Virus

AP Photo/WGBH/Nova
AP Photo/WGBH/Nova

Chikungunya, a virus hailing from Africa and spreading rapidly in the Caribbean and South America earlier this year, may have just become an even bigger problem for Brazil, just as that nation’s summer is set to begin.

The virus, which spreads through mosquitoes, causes painful joint pain. In fact, its name means “that which bends up” in Makonde, a southeastern African language, referring to its effect on a person’s limbs. It has currently only spread in the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas through a mosquito known as Aedes aegypti, a native Egyptian species that is uncommon in colder temperatures and particularly in the United States.

That did not stop it from spreading in Florida and Puerto Rico this summer, however, with the United States cataloguing 357 cases in July. That same month, the state of Texas recorded its first known case.

The protection the United States and other, more distant, areas to the Caribbean enjoyed, thanks to the limited habitat of Aedes aegypti, may be coming to an end, however. Scientific American reports that a second strain of chikungunya has been found in Brazil. The new strain, which the magazine describes as “problematic,” spreads more easily through a second variety of mosquito which is more common in the Western Hemisphere and tends to lay more eggs. This makes its population more difficult to control. Experts in Brazil are reporting that they have identified the new strain of chikungunya in only one Brazilian state, but the coming summer months threaten to expand the population of mosquitoes in such a way as to potentially also expand infection with the virus.

The only positive take to the news is that experts also note the new strain has not, as it has in Asia, mutated yet into several new and more durable varieties of the virus, a development which, according to one expert, could make the virus up to 100 times more infectious to mosquitoes and, thus, to humans.

Currently, no known cures for chikungunya exist, though attempts are being made to develop a vaccine. It has become an increasingly high-profile virus as the number of cases increase in the United States. Most notably this month, actress Lindsay Lohan has warned her followers to wear protective sprays and beware of warm areas with a high volume of mosquitoes, as the actress contracted chikungunya herself while on vacation in French Polynesia.


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