Chikungunya
The first case in India was reported in 1963.
Aedes aegypti - Photo by James Gathany (Phil, CDC)/Wikimedia Commons

In the worst Chikungunya breakout India has seen in six years which has claimed over 33 lives, cities like Pune, Delhi and Hyderabad have recorded many cases, and the numbers continue to grow. But where does the virus come from and how dangerous is it? And we have all wondered at some point, does it have anything to do with the word ‘chicken’?

Before we delve into how the disease got its name, we must understand its symptoms. Transmitted to primarily humans by an infected Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, Chikungunya is characterized by fever, headache, fatigue, rash, nausea and severe muscle and joint pain. It is the joint pain which served as inspiration for the name.

First used in a 1955 report, ‘Chikungunya’ is drawn from the “Makonde word ‘kungunyala’, meaning to dry-up or become contorted.” It referred to the “stooped posture” of the diseased, caused by arthritis-like symptoms.        

Chikungunya first appeared in Africa in 1952 after an outbreak on the Makonde Plateau, on the border of Mozambique and Tanzania. Since then, it resurfaced in the African continent and later spread to parts of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. Uganda, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Cameroon, Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Pakistan and India are some of the countries which see regular Chikungunya outbreaks.

In India, the first case was recorded in 1963 in Kolkata. One of the bigger outbreaks since then was recorded in Andhra Pradesh in late 2005 and early 2006. Maharashtra and Orissa too were affected that year, but in separate outbreaks. The disease has become endemic to the Indian subcontinent since. In 1969, it was detected in Sri Lanka, in 1975 in Vietnam and Myanmar and 1982 in Indonesia.

The 2005 outbreak in Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean left 200 dead and was also the first time Chikungunya was reported in southern states in India (Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh). 60 countries in total have been affected by the virus, including a few in Europe and the Americas as well.

Chikungunya, like other viral diseases, does not have a cure and the treatment is mostly aimed at relieving the symptoms, says WHO. It is not fatal in most cases, but according to WHO, the joint pain can often be hard to relieve and may persist for months, even years at times. In older people especially, the complications can lead to death.

The crippling nature of the symptoms associated with the disease was also the reason for it to be considered as a potential biological weapon. Chikungunya virus was one among the many agents researched by the United States to be used as a potential biological weapon. This 2013 patent document describes it as an “underestimated” potential biological weapon.

https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif“The 39 documented laboratory infections reported by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1981 strongly suggest that Chikungunya virus is infectious via aerosol route. Chikungunya virus was being weaponized by the United States army when the offensive program was terminated and is considered as a biological weapon by the German and Australian governments,” it says.