Severe mosquito virus might be only a hop away

Asian tiger mosquitoes carrying the Dengue-like Chikungunya virus could arrive in South Carolina fairly rapidly, riding with vehicles on Interstate 95, a new study suggests.

The fever has been described as feeling like your bones are breaking. The tropical virus has now made itself at home in Florida. And the mosquitoes that carry it are the most common daytime biters in the Lowcountry.

Even worse, the virus getting from there to here likely will happen as rapidly as a ride up Interstate 95.

A newly published study of the spread of Chikungunya fever in Panama indicated the carrier Asian tiger mosquito relies on road networks to disperse, rather than dispersing across the landscape. It joins an earlier study that indicated human-aided movement was the mosquito’s primary mode of dispersal in the United States, said study lead author Matthew Miller.

“The movement of the mosquito is not necessarily related to the movement of the virus, obviously, as both in the United States and Panama the mosquito arrived and expanded before the arrival of the virus. Nonetheless, with the mosquito persistent, the virus now can gain a foothold into the United States,” said Miller, who did the study working for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Both studies show the best strategy to fight the early spread of the disease would be an “aggressive control of human-aided movements,” he said. Miller and co-author Jose Loaiza, of the Panama research institute INDICAST, recommended fumigating vehicles for the mosquitoes at checkpoints already set up in Panama to prevent the spread of other pests.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding research projects on how to control the Asian tiger mosquito. Early recommendations focus on homeowner education and spraying pesticides to kill juveniles.

Finding an insect-borne virus spreading along roads is no real surprise, said Brian Scholtens, College of Charleston entomology professor. Invasive plants and animals have regularly move along the pathways of road rights of way, or in or on vehicles.

“In South Carolina, one of the best recent examples is the incredibly quick spread of the kudzu bug. This is one of the reasons why conservationists think wilderness roadless areas are so valuable. It makes invasion of natural areas by weedy, introduced species much more difficult,” Scholtens said.

Chikungunya is an African disease similar to Dengue fever, which moved across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, and like dengue, established itself in Florida. It’s not really new here: Travelers have been bringing it back to the United States for at least two decades. At least three cases have turned up in the state, including one locally.

No locally acquired cases in South Carolina have been reported so far to the S.C. Department of Health an Environmental Control, said spokesman Jim Beasley.

But the first “locally acquired” case of Chikungunya turned up in Florida last summer.

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