When you’re packing for your upcoming Caribbean getaway, make sure to include some mosquito repellent.

That’s the advice of Dr. Johnmark Opondo, deputy medical health officer with Saskatoon Health Region.

The Caribbean and parts of South America are experiencing an outbreak of chikungunya, a disease spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.  The virus causes fever combined with severe, arthritis-like pain in the joints.

A mosquito bites a person

It’s important to take steps to guard against bites from mosquitos, especially those that carry chikungunya. Stegomyia albopicta mosquitos is one type that can.

“It’s a pretty serious disease, even more so if you have an underlying medical condition,” stated Dr. Opondo. It can also be dangerous for babies and the elderly.

The fever caused by chikungunya can be high, he said, and the joint pain can be profound and all over the body, even making it difficult to walk.  In some cases, contracting this virus can be fatal, he warned.

Chickungunya is a viral disease; there is currently no treatment, and no readily available vaccine for this disease, though medication can be used to lower fever or reduce some of the joint pain. The virus simply has to run its course, which take as long as a week to 10 days.

“That’s why prevention of this disease is so important,” said Dr. Opondo. “The best thing to do is to try and avoid contracting it altogether. Knowledge is power.”

The risk of a bite from an infected mosquito is higher during the daytime, according to the Government of Canada’s travel website, particularly around sunrise and sunset. Mosquitos that can transmit chikungunya bite even in shady areas, when it is overcast, or if you are indoors.

Dr. Opondo advises wearing mosquito repellent that includes DEET, avoiding being outside during peak biting times, and wearing long sleeved shirts and pants.

That might be a tough sell, as many people travel to hot destinations during the winter so they can slip into their shorts and t-shirts for a week or two.

“But you need to do what you can to avoid mosquito bites,” Opondo said.

Opondo also suggested sleeping under a mosquito net and ensuring your room is well screened as preventative steps people should take.

If you get back from your vacation and think you may have chikungunya – symptoms can take up to 12 days to appear, but usually begin within three to seven days of the mosquito bite – see a doctor as soon as you can, and tell them of your recent travel.

Those who contract chikungunya will definitely want to see a doctor, Opondo feels.

“The pain is awful, and it can be all over the body,” he said.

Most people recover after a few days, but in some cases, joint pain may persist for weeks or months. Gastrointestinal, eye, neurological and heart complications have sometimes been reported as well.

Cases of chikungunya are not reportable in Canada at present – it was only introduced to the western hemisphere about two years ago, Opondo explained, and there have only been a few cases in Saskatchewan in that time.

Chikungunya is found primarily in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The first cases of the virus in non-travelers in the western hemisphere were found in December 2013 on the Caribbean island of St. Martin.  Since then, the virus has spread to nine Caribbean countries, including St. Maarten, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Barthelemy. It has also spread to parts of South America, causing thousands of cases of infection. It is likely to continue to spread in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The risk of contracting chikungunya is real, Opondo stressed.

“People can travel and come back and be diagnosed here,” he stated.

For more information about chickungunya, click here.

A map of the areas where chikungunya occurs is available on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website.