Chikungunya Crisis Creeps into the West as Researchers Plea for Vaccine Funds

It’s a tragic tale of a neglected disease that is silently sweeping the western world by storm; a virus that health experts have scrutinised for decades and yet not many have heard of; a saga continuously told by health scientists that falls on deaf ears. The mosquito-borne Chikungunya disease continues on its trail of outbreaks, as a lack of interest and investment from pharmaceutical organisations leaves frustrated researchers sitting helplessly in the back seat.

Chikungunya is a viral disease that is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. It has an incubation period of between 4-7 days and typical symptoms include high fevers, joint swelling, nausea, fatigue, rashes and debilitating joint pain, especially in the lower back, ankles, knees and wrists. The disease is often misdiagnosed as Dengue fever as both infections share very similar clinical symptoms. Chikungunya can be detected by using common laboratory techniques, including virus isolation and serological tests that measures the levels of IgM antibodies raised in the blood against the virus. But a lack of resources in many developing countries where the virus is endemic means that victims are often left without any apposite medical care.

The virus is transmitted to humans by two species of female mosquito: Aedes albopictus, also nicknamed the Asian tiger mosquito or “forest mosquito,” and Aedes aegypti. A. aegypti has been identified as the most common vector for transmitting the current strain of Chikungunya in India and Africa and from the Caribbean to Central America. However, being accustomed to tropical climates, A. aegypti is less likely to survive in the temperate climates of Europe and Northern America. Health researchers are highly concerned that if the particular strain transmitted by A. aegypti was to mutate to a lethal strain that would make the hostile A. albopictus a more efficient vector, then there would be a much higher risk of infection across Northern America, as the aggressive Asian tiger mosquito is now prevalent across the United States. The virus has mutated before and there is no evidence to suggest that it will not mutate again.

A depiction of the spread of the Chikungunya virus across the globe since 2nd December 2014 Image source: (Centres for Disease Control, CDC)

A depiction of the spread of the Chikungunya virus across the globe since 2nd December 2014
Image source: (Centres for Disease Control, CDC)

Chikungunya was first identified in Tanzania in 1952. Since then, there have been periodic outbreaks of the disease in Asia and Africa. The virus has been identified in nearly 40 countries across the two continents. In 2006, there were over 1,500,000 reported cases of Chikungunya in India alone. An upsurge in migration of infected individuals within the last 10 years has led to the virus rapidly spreading to popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean and Central and South America. 197 confirmed cases of the infection were also reported in a small coastal village in Italy in 2007, suggesting that outbreaks of the mosquito-borne virus are possible in Europe in the near future. But why are drug companies still not stepping-up to support researchers with vaccine production and clinical trials?

The answer may be that the virus is currently rarely fatal. Researchers face the same predicament with tackling Chikungunya as they did when Ebola was not making the main headlines. A heavy media response to the Ebola epidemic has pressurised many pharmaceutical organisations into stepping forward and fast-tracking a potential vaccine. Typically, pharmaceutical companies seem uninterested in funding trials for illnesses that are not necessarily a life-threatening epidemic, until they actually become one. Potential vaccines for Chikungunya and provisional mosquito control methods have already been put forward by scientists worldwide. But a lack of enthusiasm in the disease from established drug companies has led to these theories being shelved until the correct funding is received.

When a major outbreak of Ebola was first reported in March 2014, health officials at the World Health Organisation and GlaxoSmithKline made a collaborate decision to not rush the development of a vaccine. However, seven months later, as the Ebola crisis took to the main media headlines worldwide, GSK officials acknowledged that they should have acted earlier. As researchers now raise concerns about the rise of Chikungunya cases in the western hemisphere, we can only hope that this time it won’t be too little too late.



Article References: “1 Million People Have a Disease You’ve Never Heard Of”- Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, 15th December 2014

World Health Organisation- Dengue Control- Chikungunya

Feature Image source: Chikungunya virus– (Image: Pascal Goetgheluck/SPL)

Female mosquito taking a blood meal- (Image: James Gathany/ CDC via AP)

Joint pain-

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