A new mosquito-borne illness has been detected in Haiti

A 2006 photo of an Aedes aegypti mosquito.
A 2006 photo of an Aedes aegypti mosquito.

There is a new mosquito-borne illness in Haiti.

Infectious disease specialists at the University of Florida say they have confirmed the existence of the Mayaro virus in a patient in Haiti. The virus is closely related to the chikungunya virus but researchers say they do not yet know if it’s caused by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito that’s been linked to chikungunya and the Zika virus.

“We are not sure,” said Dr. John Lednicky, a University of Florida associate professor in the environmental and global health department of the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “Many different mosquitoes can carry the same virus.”

Lednicky, who runs UF’s laboratory in Haiti, said the Mayaro virus first was found in Trinidad and Tobago in 1954, and has been causing outbreaks in South America, mainly in the Amazon. It causes similar symptoms to chikungunya: fever, joint and muscle pain, rashes and abdominal pain.

“One can say it’s as bad as chikungunya, but there is so little information available,” he said. “Maybe it’s been in Haiti this whole time and no one checked for it.”

Whether the confirmed case signals the start of a new outbreak in the Caribbean region, researchers do not know, Lednicky said. Nor do they know if the virus is going to be widespread in Haiti where the Zika virus has been difficult to track because of the country’s weak health system.

“We would like to do a lot more but our hands are quite tied,” he said. “We would really like to help in Haiti... and look into which mosquitoes are carrying this virus.”

It was Lednicky and his team of researchers who earlier this year announced that the Zika virus had been present in the hemisphere months before it was confirmed in Brazil in March 2015. It was in Haiti as early as 2014, they said, citing blood samples collected in December 2014. The lab had begun monitoring chikungunya fever cases after its April 2014 outbreak in Haiti and had collected blood samples from schoolchildren in the Gressier/Leogane region, southwest of Port-au-Prince, where the laboratory is located.

Lednicky said the new Mayaro virus is different from what they found in 2014.

“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,” he said.

On Thursday, the university announced that the National Institutes of Health awarded it more than $1.75 million to study the Zika virus. The funding will support the laboratory’s ongoing Zika research in Haiti.

“Any little bit helps,” Lednicky said. “A lot more money would be useful. It’s very difficult to do this type of work and do it well unless you have a lot of funding, and you also have to train the people to do this work.”

In addition to the NIH funding, Bernard Okech, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Global Health, received a $100,000 award from the USDA to support his research into the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus. He studies mosquito-borne diseases at the Haiti lab.

“Not only are we doing great research on the Zika virus, but for the first time we’re also getting awards to support that research,” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute. “The funds we are receiving to support our research on the Zika outbreaks in the Caribbean will help us begin to understand the risk to Florida.”