From the Avian Flu to SARS, viruses have sent constituents around the world into unwarranted hysterics. Pollsters are still arguing about the role played by Ebola during midterm elections in the United States, where media outlets last year were accused of overhyping a nonexistent threat for political expediency and prime-time ratings.
In Colombia, the government has officially reported over 175,000 cases of chikungunya, a tongue-twister viral disease spread by mosquitoes. Although the sickness is not fatal, it is highly unpleasant. The name translates to “that which bends up,” a description of the contortions of victims suffering from the sudden onset of severe joint pain and fever.
Nevertheless, the population remains cheerful. “We’re the happiest people on Earth. We’re not going to let the aches stop us from laughing,” a hotel clerk in Cucutá, the capital of the department of Norte de Santander, told The City Paper. Local hospitals in the nation’s sixth largest city had quickly run out of beds for patients.
Indeed, online videos of Colombians singing about their experience with the disease have garnered millions of views, including reinterpretations of popular Latin love songs and nightclub hits. Residents of the Caribbean coast, where the virus has struck hardest, recited to The City Paper local rhymes about their ailments, and explained that a false limp should accompany the tunes.
Chikungunya is a democratic disease. The young and elderly, the wealthy and impoverished, have all been affected. Yet domestic and foreign travelers with Christmas and New Year’s Eve plans in Cartagena and Santa Marta were undeterred. Despite tales of understaffed lodgings as a result of the virus, leading hostels and hotels confirmed that business was as good as usual, if not better.
For others, the illness has represented a windfall of cash. In February 2015, sales of insecticides and repellants were up 25 percent from last year. Acetaminophen and water bottles have also been flying off the shelves, to the point that President Juan Manuel Santos, in early January, announced that the Armed Forces would help distribute pain relievers around the country.
The subject has attracted its fair share of political mudslinging. Former President Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the current administration and the on-going peace talks in Havana, unleashed a flurry of messages on Twitter to his 3.6 million followers to criticize the government’s response management. In turn, daily newspapers characterized the leader of the Democratic Center political party as an infected insect.
There is no cure for chikungunya, so the Colombian Ministry of Health is currently focused on prevention measures and debunking local myths about treatment. Townspeople throughout the nation have claimed that drinking alcohol while sick is a death sentence, and that the virus can be spread from a mother’s milk to her baby. In the city of Neiva, locals have taken to wrapping their appendages in mango leaves.
Given the rate of home remedies, the true number of cases of chikungunya could be much higher. Despite sharp decreases this year in former hotspots, the government had previously estimated that the virus would affect 670,000 Colombians by the end of 2015. In the community of Luis Carlos Galán, every member of all 350 families had fallen ill.
The virus was first identified in 1953 in Tanzania, and for decades remained in Africa. The sickness made its way over to the Americas in 2013, and more than 20 Caribbean and South American countries and territories have reported outbreaks.
Globalization has played a key role in spreading the disease, as infected mosquitoes have been found to follow major transportation routes of various products, including plants and used tires.
The greatest fears of the disease are associated with its long-lasting effects. Although some patients will recover in a matter of weeks, it is not unusual to remain bedridden for months. Worse still, over a year later, victims have reported numbness in their appendages, and the elderly in particular can suffer recurring arthritis-like pain, depression, and fatigue.
Other negative externalities associated with the virus have included a shortage at blood blanks precisely when thousands of Colombians are in no condition to donate. Several towns have also reported bands of criminals gathering funds for fictional mosquito fumigations, only to abscond with the money.
Despite the continued risk posed by the virus, chikungunya doesn’t appear to be stopping Colombians from poking fun at their plight, nor tourists from enjoying their vacations.
Yet with news of celebrity actress Lindsay Lohan’s contracting the illness in 2015 while sunbathing in Bora Bora, one might expect United States media pundits to start trying to pronounce the tropical disease.