TAMPA — Chances are there will be rain today. More than a foot of rain has fallen in Tampa so far this month, four inches more than the average for all of July.
With that comes the usual aggravations: flooded streets, frizzy hair, wet shoes and socks.
July is cresting in West Central Florida, and mosquitoes, with their piercing proboscises and nerve-wringing whine, are on the prowl for red-blooded victims. This year, they may leave behind more than an itching welt: chikungunya.
The virus, which emerged in Africa and over the past couple of years spread across the Caribbean, is poised to make its incursion into the continental United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 497 cases reported in the country as of this week, including a few in Hillsborough County.
Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Joel Peralta is believed to have contracted the virus while visiting the Dominican Republic over the All-Star break earlier this month. This week, Peralta was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of the symptoms.
Two reported cases, both from South Florida, caught the illness in this country. Neither had traveled to infected areas, and that's what worries health officials. Previously, all of the chikungunya cases in Florida were contracted outside of the United States, typically in the Caribbean.
“That is a larger concern for the future of the progress of the disease,” said David Sanders, an associate professor of biology at Purdue University and expert on the chikungunya virus.
“Once it's here, that means there are mosquitoes in the United States that are now transmitting the virus,” he said. “You only get the disease if you are bitten by a mosquito, and if you're encountering infected mosquitoes in the United States, it's going to spread.”
South Florida is the gateway to the Caribbean. In 2013, more than 7 million visitors came from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Florida Department of Health and in 2011, 13.5 million cruise-ship passengers returned to ports in Florida, including Tampa, after making stops all through the Caribbean.
The virus is spread only by mosquitoes, which can bite an infected person and spread it to the next person on whom they feed.
Sanders said this year, chikungunya, which is Makonde, a Tanzania dialect, for “bending-over disease,” won't infect a lot of people. Next year may be different, he said, predicting the virus will become a problem in Florida and in other parts of the Southeast in the summer of 2015.
Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman Steve Huard said there have been a handful of locally reported chikungunya cases, but all the patients have contracted it while traveling abroad.
“We haven't had any locally acquired cases, which really is the issue,” he said. “The tipping point is when we start seeing cases that are locally acquired; people who have not been either traveling or around people who have been traveling. Then, we would start paying attention.”
Huard said even if chikungunya gets a foothold in Florida, that doesn't mean it will run rampant like it has in the Caribbean.
That's because mosquito control is more effective here. Huar pointed to similar diseases that have had runs then were brought under control, like dengue and West Nile viruses and eastern equine and St. Louis encephalitis.
There is no vaccine for chikungunya because the disease is viral. Medications only treat the symptoms, meaning infected people must allow the disease to run its course. Chikungunya is rarely fatal but takes its toll on a person and can last up to a month. Symptoms include headaches, rashes, vomiting, exhaustion and muscle and joint pain.
The best option is to avoid being bitten by a mosquito, Huard said, and reducing breeding grounds around the house is key.
Eliminate places where standing water collects like bird baths, clogged gutters and plant pots; even some plants like bromeliads can trap water and be a place where mosquitoes breed. Don't go outside at dusk and wear long sleeve shirts if you're working in the yard. Proper mosquito repellent is a must.
Locally, the never-ending fight with mosquitoes was more intense recently, said Carlos Fernandez, director of Hillsborough County Mosquito Control.
“The traps came back pretty full this week,” he said. Workers set mosquito traps on Mondays and collect them after a 24-hour period. “They were pretty loaded with mosquitoes.” Last week, several areas were sprayed by trucks, mostly around South Tampa, he said, and the department will continue to fog the area until Friday. A helicopter also was called in to blanket the area south of Kennedy Boulevard with spray, he said.
Complaints were coming in from everywhere, he said, including areas around Town 'N Country, Temple Terrace, Ruskin and beyond.
He said it's a war that never will be won.
“That's in the name, mosquito control,” he said. “We cannot eliminate them, but we can reduce them and reduce the probability of mosquito-carrying diseases.”