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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Chikungunya virus has made its way to area

— The stifling heat and violent rainstorms of summer mean swarms of bloodthirsty insects breeding in backyards across the Tampa Bay area.

What’s worrisome to health officials this season, especially in Florida, is a relatively new mosquito-borne illness that’s increasingly appearing on U.S. soil among travelers bitten during trips to South America and the Caribbean.

So far this year, Florida has seen 48 cases of chikungunya virus contracted by international travelers, including a handful in Pasco and Hillsborough counties, according to the Florida Department of Health.

While the disease rarely leads to death, it can cause a week or more of fever, severe joint pain and rash. There is no vaccination or treatment.

In the past year, the virus has become widespread in the Caribbean, but it might take only one unknowing traveler coming back from a trip for the virus to take hold locally, said Glen-Paul Edson of Pinellas County’s Mosquito Control office.

“All it takes is that one person to not know they have it, go outside and get bit, and then that mosquito gives it to someone else and we have an epidemic,” he said.

So far this year, health departments across Florida haven’t reported any local cases of mosquito-borne illness contracted in humans, though there have been 24 cases of dengue fever and 19 cases of malaria among people who had traveled out of the country, according to the Department of Health.

The numbers for chikungunya so far have been much higher, and its potential to spread quickly could be high.

The disease is carried primarily by two mosquito species that are prevalent in Florida and that tend to breed primarily in puddles of standing water that can be as small as a bottle cap.

The yellow fever mosquito and the black-white striped Asian tiger hover low to the ground and bite ankles. They also are active during the day, so if a horde emerges from the garden at high noon, there’s likely a flower pot nearby that needs to be drained, Edson said.

One of the mosquito species is typical of Brazil, and New York Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn doctors across the nation in the event cases increase as soccer fans return from the World Cup.

The agency has no reported cases of chikungunya in Brazil, but 4,676 lab-confirmed cases and another 183,761 suspected cases have been reported in countries throughout the Caribbean and South America.

In the Tampa Bay area, health officials’ main message to the community is prevention.

“We are really pushing to drain and cover anything that can hold water in your neighborhood, in your backyard. If you feel like you’re overrun with mosquitoes and you have a heavy population, call mosquito control,” said Warren McDougle, epidemiology manager for the health department in Hillsborough County.

Mosquito control workers in Hillsborough planned to spray pesticides by helicopter Wednesday night over the Apollo Beach area, and Pinellas expected to use foggers to target spots with high infestation levels on Friday.

The agencies rely on residents to report high mosquito populations and to request help from the county in eliminating breeding grounds on individual properties, Edson said.

“You almost have to go door-to-door, dumping containers and educating the public,” Edson said.

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