A pediatrician providing charitable maternity care in Haiti is one of the first Minnesotans to contract a mosquito-borne virus that is being monitored by federal health officials after migrating from Africa and spreading rapidly in the Caribbean.
Dr. Jennifer Halverson went to bed one evening in April after celebrating her birthday with colleagues in Haiti and awoke in the middle of the night with crushing joint pain — a characteristic of the infection caused by chikungunya (roughly pronounced “chicken-gun-ya’’). The pain left her immobile and delayed her return to Minneapolis, where she is an emergency room physician for Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
“I’ve broken a bone. I’ve had other medical issues,” she said Monday. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in so much pain.”
Federal health officials are concerned that the virus will eventually spread to the United States much as the West Nile virus did — perhaps when an infected traveler returns to the U.S. and is bitten by a mosquito, which then carries the infection to other people who are then bitten by more mosquitoes.
So far this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 38 cases of Americans being infected, all on Caribbean islands. (One is considered a domestic case because it occurred in Puerto Rico.) More than 130,000 cases have been reported in the Caribbean since the first known regional transmission of the virus occurred on the island of St. Martin last December.
Halverson’s infection was reported to the CDC after she returned to Minnesota and visited the HealthPartners Travel and Tropical Medicine Center in St. Louis Park.
While the fatality rate from chikungunya is low, the fever can be severe and the joint pain can linger for months after the immediate symptoms have receded, said Dr. Pat Walker, medical director of the clinic. “It’s really just beginning to peak in the Caribbean. So we’re going to start to see more imported cases back in the U.S.”
The risk of additional infections occurring in Minnesota is low, compared to other states, because the two types of mosquitoes known to carry the chikungunya virus don’t circulate this far north. Transmission from an infected person to a mosquito can happen only during the initial acute stage of the infection, which lasts about a week, Halverson said.
Halverson said her infection left her bedridden, and that even rolling over caused pain. Many other volunteer doctors in Haiti suffered infections this spring as well — some of them underestimating her pain until they suffered it themselves, she said.
“There’s sort of this chikungunya walk that we all talk about,” she said. “It’s pretty unmistakable” as people walk hunched over in tiny steps. Halverson has continued to suffer joint pain, often in different parts of her body each day. Flare-ups occur when she reaches to tie her shoes or tries to open a bottle.
The doctor believes her symptoms will recede over time, but she worries about the impoverished people in Haiti, and what prolonged joint pain could mean to low-income workers whose jobs often require manual labor.
“You take them out of work for a week,” she said, “and it really impacts their families. It affects their life.”