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Chikungunya Virus Threatens to Cause Outbreaks in United States, Experts Create Task Force

Posted on Thursday, April 10, 2014

Baltimore, MD -- Causing victims to suffer severe fever and pain, chikungunya virus has reached the Caribbean and South America – and is predicted to soon cause outbreaks in the United States. For many years the virus has remained primarily in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In response to the arrival of the virus in the Western Hemisphere, the Global Virus Network (GVN) announced today the formation of the GVN Chikungunya Task Force, comprised of top virologists from around the world.

The announcement of the new task force coincides with World Health Day. Vector-borne diseases are the theme for World Health Day 2014 which is celebrated annually on April 7. Chikungunya is a vector-borne disease that is quickly spread by mosquitoes.

"Viruses are among the leading causes of death and disability in the world. Being able to quickly bring together the most knowledgeable researchers without regards to borders and political agendas to address viral threats such as chikungunya is paramount," said Global Virus Network co-founder and scientific director Dr. Robert Gallo and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The GVN Chikungunya Task Force is composed of 16 virologists representing nine countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Sweden, Grenada, Estonia, South Africa, and Thailand. It is being led by Dr. Scott Weaver of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), Dr. John K. Fazakerley at the Pirbright Institute in the U.K., and Dr. Marc Lecuit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. All of the participating members are affiliated with GVN Centers of Excellence. Much of the group's effort will focus on issues related to more rapid identification of infections, improved treatment options and development of an effective vaccine.

"There is every expectation that chikungunya will continue its spread from the Caribbean into Central and South America, Mexico, and eventually the United States," said Global Virus Network's Chikungunya Task Force co-chair Dr. Scott Weaver. "As we gear up to address chikungunya in the Americas, we have much to learn from other countries where the virus has been endemic for many years. And, this new global collaboration will help all countries, particularly as we prepare for vaccine trials."

Chikungunya was first described following an outbreak in southern Tanzania in 1952. Since then the virus has been indentified in dozens of countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and now the Americas.

There is no specific antiviral drug treatment for chikungunya, which also presents as dengue another threatening mosquito-borne infection. Treatment of those infected with Chikungunya is directed primarily at relieving symptoms, which include a very high fever and joint pain. The joint pain is often very debilitating and, in some cases, persists for several months or years. Chikungunya does not cause death directly but in the presence of other comorbidities it may contribute to a fatal outcome.

A vaccine against chikungunya does not yet exist; however, it is a key focus of Dr. Weaver's work at UTMB. In addition, as the range of the virus expands, new and rapid diagnostics will be needed to differentiate chikungunya infections from other viral illnesses, and to determine where best to deploy any future vaccines.

The Caribbean's first cases of chikungunya occurred this past October. It is estimated that in those few months there have approximately 15,000 cases. With the area's high level of tourism, the virus would have many opportunities to quickly spread to other locations. In addition, there is an indication that the type of mosquito connected to the Caribbean cases is common in the United States, Mexico and parts of South America.

"The GVN Chikungunya Task Force will help speed the process to creating vaccines and much-needed diagnostic tools," said Global Virus Network's president Dr. Sharon Hrynkow. "We look forward to working with public health agencies, including the Pan American Health Organization, to prevent the spread of chikungunya and mitigate human suffering."

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