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Mosquito-Borne Breaking Bone Disease Spreads In Haiti


A mosquito-borne virus is spreading across the Caribbean. It's called Chikungunya. It's hardly ever fatal but it does hurt, causing severe joint pain. And public health officials expect the disease to eventually reach the U.S. Reporter Peter Granitz takes us to Haiti, the country with the most recent confirmed outbreak.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Chikungunya was first detected more than 50 years ago in Tanzania before spreading elsewhere in Africa, Asia and India. In December, it was diagnosed on the Caribbean island of St. Martin and since has spread to more than half a dozen islands. Haiti saw its first case in early May. The name means that which bends up in the language of the Makonde people of Tanzania.

DR. ROGER NASCI: It refers to the posture of the people that are afflicted with the disease, referring to being bent up or bent over because of the severe arthralgia that it produces.

GRANITZ: That's Doctor Roger Nasci. He investigates vector-borne diseases for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

NASCI: It's a pretty painful disease.

GRANITZ: That pain is concentrated in the bones and is accompanied by high fever and rashes. Locals have started calling it kraze le zo - breaking bone in Creole. The symptoms look a lot like dengue fever - another common disease here. Much of the world already calls that broken bone syndrome. The mosquito that carries dengue also carries chikungunya. Jacques Boncy leads Haiti's national laboratory.

JACQUES BONCY: The virus of chikungunya is completely different, but the symptoms are alike. So you could miss one for the other. The recommendation for the physician is to test for both. So if the person is dengue negative, and has the symptoms, the possibility of having chikungunya is higher.

GRANITZ: But Haitian physicians cannot test for both. There is no facility here capable of testing for the chikungunya virus yet. Boncy expects the CDC and World Health Organization to provide test kits in the next couple of months. The Haitian health ministry said last week more than 1,500 cases meet the clinical definition of chikungunya, but Boncy says the number could be exponentially hig her. The CDC's Nasci says the strain spotted in the Americas most likely came from the Pacific.

NASCI: There's a lot of travel between the Philippines and the Caribbean. You know, we can't be unequivocally positive about how the virus got there, but looking at the virus lineage, the greatest likelihood is that it came from that region of the world.

GRANITZ: There is no cure, but the virus is rarely fatal. Physicians can recommend Tylenol, but there's really nothing else they can do. For someone living day-to-day, it could mean no income that week. The intense pain and fever usually pass within a few days. But that's not much solace to Esther Emma, who's at a local clinic.


GRANITZ: She's holding her 15-day-old daughter Fritzline, who has a faint rash on her back.

ESTHER EMMA: (through translator) She was moaning, moaning, moaning.

GRANITZ: Fritzline doesn't sleep for more than a couple of minutes at a time before she wakes up in pain. At first, Emma says, she thought her newborn had a stomachache. But Emma had already had what looked like chikungunya - a terrible fever, and pain in her body so bad she says she couldn't open her hands. So she brought Fritzline here, to Heartline Maternity.

EMMA: (through translator) It's very scary to see a little baby like this have the fever because I had it and I know how painful it is.

GRANITZ: The rainy season has begun in Haiti creating fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Public health officials say they expect a spike in chikungunya cases before the spread of the disease tapers off because once infected, people develop immunity. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Port au Prince.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Granitz