MIAMI — A painful mosquito-borne virus common in Africa and Asia has advanced quickly throughout the eastern Caribbean in the past two months, raising the prospect that a once-distant illness will become entrenched throughout the region, public health experts say.
Chikungunya fever, a viral disease similar to dengue, was first spotted in December on the French side of St. Martin and has now spread to seven other countries, the authorities said. About 3,700 people are confirmed or suspected of having contracted it.
It was the first time the malady was locally acquired in the Western Hemisphere. Experts say conditions are ripe for the illness to spread to Central and South America, but they say it is unlikely to affect the United States.
“It is an important development when disease moves from one continent to another,” said Dr. C. James Hospedales, the executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency in Trinidad. “Is it likely here to stay? Probably. That’s the pattern we have observed elsewhere.”
Chikungunya fever is particularly troublesome for places such as St. Martin, a French and Dutch island 230 miles east of Puerto Rico, where 2 million tourists visit annually. In an effort to keep the disease from affecting tourism and crippling the island economy, local governments began islandwide campaigns of insecticide fogging last week and house-to-house cleanups of places where mosquitoes could breed.
The French side of St. Martin to the north has had 476 confirmed cases, the largest cluster in all of the islands, while the Dutch side has had 40 cases, according to the Caribbean Public Health Agency. Already, the travel search engine Kayak said there was a 75 percent decline in searches for St. Martin in the past three weeks, compared to the same period last year.
Searches for Martinique, which has had 364 confirmed chikungunya cases, were down 18 percent.
“When I read about chikungunya, I thought: ‘There’s a mosquito in St. Martin waiting for me, rubbing its little feet together waiting to get a hold of me,’” said Betsy Carter, a New York City novelist who was scheduled to travel to St. Martin with two other couples in January. “So we all decided not to go.”