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December 18, 2014

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Mosquito bite carries virus from tropics to desert

Tips for avoiding mosquito-borne illnesses

• Eliminate standing water, including bird baths, unmaintained pools, potted plants, wheelbarrows and anywhere else water can collect.

• Make sure doors and windows have tight-fitting screens without tears or holes.

• Use insect repellents that contain DEET, Picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

• Wear pants and long-sleeved shirts outdoors. Spray repellent on clothing and exposed skin.

Gretchen Roselli took bronze in the 1,500-meter race at the 2013 National Senior Games and had her sights set on competing in the competition’s 5-kilometer race next year.

But after traveling to the Caribbean this spring and contracting a virus that’s spreading through the region and infiltrating the United States, the Las Vegas resident is worried she may never return to competition.

Roselli hadn’t heard of chikungunya before she went on vacation with her husband in May. But after contracting the painful, mosquito-borne virus, she felt responsible to help raise awareness of it.

Roselli, 52, a former dancer and gymnast, thinks she was bitten by an infectious mosquito while jogging on the beach during the couple’s trip to Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands. The two known carriers for chikungunya (pronounced chicken-gun-ye), the Asian tiger mosquito and Yellow Fever mosquito, are aggressive daytime biters.

On the final day of the trip, when the couple were about to embark on an 18-hour, multistop trip back to Southern Nevada, Roselli awoke with a horribly stiff neck and muscle pain.

“I’d taken a yoga class and thought I’d slept funny or had a muscle strain,” Roselli said. “As a dancer, you tend to just fight through injuries, so I didn’t think too much about it.”

The next morning, she felt terrible.

“I was knocked out,” she said. “I had no desire to get up, to eat, to do anything.”

The next day, she had a fever of 102.

Roselli asked her husband to check for travel warnings. Within minutes he found the CDC’s advisory on chikungunya. The symptoms matched Roselli’s.

There is no cure for chikungunya, but she went to the hospital and was treated with fluids and pain killers.

For almost two weeks, Roselli was bedridden. She suffered through nausea, diarrhea, head pain, weakness, chills, sweats, disorientation, and sensitivity to noise and touch.

“I couldn’t think stuff through and complete actions. I was having a hard time processing and remembering things,” she said.

She gradually felt better, but three months after she was infected, she remains weaker than normal and continues to suffer memory issues. She was training for a 5k (3.1 miles) but now has trouble running 2 miles without feeling exhausted. She writes things down more than she used to in order to remember them.

“It has changed my lifestyle,” she said. “Going hiking or doing physical activities is tough now. I’ve been physical my whole life. I went from being a dancer to a runner. Not just a jogger, a good runner. To have that all taken away when it’s part of your life ... it has been hard to say the least.”

Roselli has collected a binder full of articles and reports on chikungunya. But some questions don’t have clear answers, such as when her aches and fatigue will abate. Joint and muscle pain can last months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chikungunya arrived in the Western Hemisphere in December, when a case was found in the Caribbean island of St. Martin, the CDC reported. The disease had been limited mostly to Asia and Africa, and previous cases in the Western Hemisphere had always involved people who’d contracted the virus while traveling.

Through Aug. 19, 640 cases have been reported in the United States this year, all but four contracted outside of the country. Between 2006 and 2013, there was an average of just 28 cases per year in the United States. The four cases found in U.S. residents who hadn’t traveled recently all were in southeastern Florida.

“The greatest concern is not mortality or death, but the fact that it is a debilitating disease that can affect a person’s ability to drive to work or finish a semester at school,” said Dr. Rajeev Vaidyanathan, director of environmental science for Clarke, a mosquito control company. “Chikungunya can cause polyarthritis, when you have pain in multiple joints, and that affects quality of life.”

The types of mosquitoes that carry chikungunya have not been found in Nevada. They are prevalent in tropical areas such as the Caribbean but have been found in many southern states.

Roselli’s is the only reported case in Nevada this year. Unlike West Nile Virus, chikungunya is not carried by birds, Vaidyanathan said, meaning the spread should be easier to control.

Chikungunya rarely is fatal but it can cause complications in the young, elderly and others with compromised immune systems. Roselli wants to make people thinking of traveling to the Caribbean aware of the spread of the disease.

“I would never tell anybody to not go to the Caribbean or to stop living their life,” she said. “But you need to be aware and make a decision. And if your immune system is compromised, perhaps you should not go.”

Contracting chikungunya is believed to result in lifelong immunity, and Roselli said she would “definitely” go back to the British Virgin Islands again.

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