New mosquito-borne disease detected in Haiti

Virologist retrieves samples from freezer
John Lednicky, virologist at the Emerging Pathogens Institute.

 A child in Haiti was identified with a serious mosquito-borne illness that had never been reported in the Caribbean nation, according to researchers at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI).

Known as “Mayaro virus,” it is closely related to Chikungunya virus and was first isolated in Trinidad in 1954. Most reported cases, however, have been confined to small outbreaks in the Amazon. Whether this case is indicative of the start of a new outbreak in the Caribbean region is currently unknown.

“The virus we detected is genetically different from the ones that have been described recently in Brazil, and we don’t know yet if it is unique to Haiti or if it is a recombinant strain from different types of Mayaro viruses,” said Dr. John Lednicky, an associate professor in the environmental and global health department of the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

The case was identified from a blood sample taken in January 2015 from an eight-year-old boy in rural Haiti. The patient had a fever and abdominal pain but no rash or conjunctivitis. Due to the University of Florida’s presence in the region during and following the 2014 chikungunya outbreak, plasma samples were obtained from febrile children and analyzed for the presence of chikungunya virus RNA using a genetic identification technique known as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) by University of Florida’s Dr. Maha Elbadry in Gressier, Haiti. The plasma samples were then sent to EPI for additional virology and molecular analyses, focusing on the detection of Chikungunya, dengue, and Zika viruses.  Dengue virus was detected, in addition to a “new” virus that was subsequently identified as Mayaro..

“You only find what you’re looking for in your tests,” Lednicky said. “So if your tests are specific for Chikungunya, dengue, and Zika viruses, but you have another agent like Mayaro virus, you’re not going to detect it by molecular tests.”

Mayaro fever’s symptoms are similar to those of Chikungunya fever:–fever, joint pain, muscle pain, and rashes. Abdominal pain is also a feature of Mayaro fever, however, and joint pain can last for a longer period of time.

The findings were published online today in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“While current attention has been focused on the Zika virus, the finding of yet another mosquito-borne virus which may be starting to circulate in the Caribbean is of concern,” said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.  “Hopefully we will not see the same massive epidemics that we saw with Chikungunya, dengue, and now Zika.  However, these findings underscore the fact that there are additional viruses ‘waiting in the wings’ that may pose threats in the future, and for which we need to be watching.”