Will Chikungunya be the Media’s New Ebola?

Chikungunya is a virus transmitted by a mosquito bite. There is currently no vaccine, or cure for it, other than letting the symptoms flow their course. It is not lethal, but it is painful and debilitating, causing high fevers and pain in the joints, usually for months. And even though it was discovered in 1952 (in Tanzania), this is probably the first time you are hearing of it. If it’s not, maybe the first time you heard about it was last week, when American actress Lindsay Lohan said she had caught the virus during her vacation in Tahiti, in the French Polynesia.

The incident prompted many media outlets in the United States to report on Chikungunya, some with more dramatism than others. For example, on the first day of 2015–also prompted by the fact that the United States government had recorded 2000 cases of the disease in the last year there–NPR opened a piece with: “Most of us will remember 2014 as the year Ebola came to the U.S. But another virus made its debut in the Western Hemisphere. And unlike Ebola, it’s not leaving anytime soon.”

That’s an odd thing to say, since Ebola is still very much a problem in West Africa. But I guess the phrase refers more to the mediatic standing of that virus in the American media: Ebola has left the collective consciousness of the United States and has left an opening for Chikungunya, a new foreign ailment to be afraid of. If that is the case, NPR might be on to something, because indeed, the Western Hemisphere has been paying attention.

Until 2006, all of the cases of Chikungunya had been reported in Sub Saharan Africa (“chikungunya” means something like “that which bends up” in the Makonde language of Tanzania and Mozambique) and South and Southeast Asia. But a current outbreak has affected most of the Caribbean and it has reached parts of the Pacific Coast of Central America.

It started in late 2013 in the French part of St. Martin, and by July of last year there were 5000 confirmed cases throughout Latin America. By then, 21 people had died in the Caribbean because of the virus. Even though, as I mentioned, the Chikungunya virus is not lethal, it can be deadly for people with poor defenses, such as people who are already sick with something else, or people past a certain age. So we had been following the virus developments.

Puerto Rico officially declared a Chikungunya epidemic in July. Venezuela has been scheduling fumigations around the country to combat Chikungunya and Dengue. In Colombia, where I’m writing this right now, Chikungunya was the major public health concern of 2014, and it is still in 2015. Media here started following the virus in July, and coverage started to grow after August, when the first case in the country was reported. Now, most Colombian media outlets have sections exclusively dedicated to the virus and the disease it causes. Both the Minister of Health, Alejandro Gaviria, and the President, Juan Manuel Santos, have had to make various public announcements about them.

Currently, there have been 75,000 cases reported in the country (and very likely many more unreported), most of them concentrated in the Caribbean, or Atlantic region of the country. There, the weather–hot, humid and in proximity to various big masses of water–helps the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the bearer of the virus, to thrive. For now, the only precaution that works is to avoid being bitten. That means either buying bug spray, or moving away from places with mosquitoes. Yet, most of the cases have been reported in the periphery, and most of the people infected come from lower classes. Many people are too poor to afford continuous use of bug spray, while mosquitoes are everywhere, especially in poorer neighborhoods, with not good enough sewage or garbage disposal plans.

Other areas of the Caribbean have similar conditions and so it seems that, unfortunately, the virus will keep spreading along the region, including in the American state of Florida. Then, NPR’s prophecy might become true. In their article, Walter Tabachnkick, an entomologist working in that state, says: “There’s very little predictability for Chikungunya. But would 50,000 or 100,000 cases in Florida be surprising? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

There is room for Chikungunya to grow and become the misinformed panic that Ebola was in the United States. And, as we have seen with Ebola in Western Media, these media frenzies are usually discriminatory. It happened too with Chikungunya in Colombian media: coverage of the virus truly blew up last December, when many wealthy people from the big cities in the center of the country (up in the Andes, where few mosquitoes live) headed for vacations to cities and towns along the Atlantic coast, or in lower altitudes, where the weather is nicer, but mosquitoes are more common.

Spanish-Colombian commentator Salud Hernández got the virus a few weeks ago in a trip to La Guajira, in the north of the country. She used one of her weekly columns at El Tiempo newspaper, usually dedicated to talk about politics, to tell the story of her disease and how doctors in Bogotá–where supposedly the best medical facilities are–were completely unequipped to treat her. She made the point that, since no one powerful from the “center” of the country had gotten the virus, there had been no national campaign to coordinate medical efforts against this virus, thus damaging the health of those in the poorer, more vulnerable areas.

We’ll see how it turns out to be in the United States. Will Chileans be discriminated because they come from the Chikungunya land of “Latin America” (Just like, say, Rwandans were with Ebola)? I don’t know.

In the meantime, tell Bob Geldof we already have a song for Chikungunya.

Pablo Medina Uribe

Pablo Medina Uribe co-edits Latin America is a Country. He doesn’t have a middle name.

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