Is Mayaro virus the next Zika?


Just when you learned to fear Zika, a new foreign-sounding virus could be winging its way towards the Florida coast.

Health officials in the Dominican Republic went on alert Monday for a mosquito-borne illness known as the Mayaro virus, which was recently identified in a patient in neighboring Haiti. The illness, which can cause chills, malaise, headache, stomach pains and joint pains, is transmitted by that same god-awful Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika, Dengue, Yellow fever and Chikungunya.

The symptoms of Mayaro are like a combination of typhoid and Chikungunya—you’ll have to run to the bathroom every five minutes, but your joints will hurt so much your knees might not get you there in time.

The discovery of the rare virus 600 miles from Miami is cause for concern. Until it was found in Haiti, the illness was thought to be only in South America. Dr. John Lednicky, the University of Florida virologist who identified the illness in the Haitian patient, says it’s still too early to say how many other people might be infected on Hispaniola, or whether the mosquito-borne virus “will make it here [to Florida] or not.”

But if officials in South Florida have learned anything from Zika (and it’s not clear whether they have) they should be on alert for Mayaro starting now, he says. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Zika also seemed like an exotic and faraway threat, before it moved into Miami’s trendy Wynwood art district and decided to take up residence in Florida.

“When we first found Zika in May 2015 in three patients in Haiti, we told everyone we knew but we couldn’t get anyone interested,” Dr. Lednicky told me in a phone interview. “We were told it was an obscure and benign virus.”

Now we know differently. Zika is now understood to be a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. In less than a year, Zika went from being an unknown word to a scary word that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue in South Florida. Sixteen months ago, Dr. Lednicky’s team couldn’t get anyone to heed their warnings about the spread of Zika. Now Miami has awareness campaigns, fumigation efforts, airport courtesy bins full of Off bug spray, and a curious number of people wearing long sleeves in a city known for showing skin.

So Mayaro shouldn’t be shrugged off, Lednicky says.

“We need to be pro-active and stay on top of this thing,” he urged.

That’s easier said than done. Mayaro is still somewhat of a mystery, and there isn’t even good testing for it. So staying on top of it means making money available for research and response.

Here’s what we do know about the pesky virus. Mayaro was discovered in Trinidad in 1974, but has since been limited to South America. The worst outbreak was recorded in Venezuela in 2000, but has also been previously detected in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Guyana, and Surinam.

Lednicky says the rediscovery of the virus in the Caribbean is “very startling,” and raises several unanswered questions, like “Has it been there the whole time and no one recognized it?”

It’s possible. The virologist says the symptoms of Mayaro are so similar to Chikungunya and several other ailments that it’s easy to misdiagnose. Dual infections can also complicate an accurate diagnosis. The Haitian patient who tested positive for Mayaro also tested positive for Dengue 1, and was mistakenly being treated for typhoid. The presence of the Mayaro virus was only identified through blood lab tests at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” Lednicky said. “The important thing is to stay on top of things because any one of theses mosquito-borne viruses can make its way to Florida, so people have to be prepared.”

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