Dr. John Lednicky, a researcher at the University of Florida, pictured, is lead author of a study identifying the Mayaro virus in a patient in Haiti for the first time. The virus had previously mostly been seen in small outbreaks in rural South America and near the Amazon. Photo by University of Florida
GAINESVILLE, Fla., Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Researchers identified a mosquito-borne virus in a boy in Haiti, where it had previously not been seen before.
As officials in the United States struggle to get their arms around the growing Zika virus epidemic, researchers at the University of Florida identified the Mayaro virus in an 8-year-old in Haiti, where it has never been seen.
"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," Dr. John Lednicky, an associate professor in the environmental and global health department at the University of Florida, said in a press release.
Mayaro virus was discovered in Trinidad in 1954 and is similar to chikungunya virus, but has largely only been seen in small outbreaks in Brazil, the Amazon and other parts of tropical South America.
In 1999, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch studied 27 cases of Mayaro in South America, including two people visiting from the United States suspected to have picked it up in eastern Peru. In 2011, a Swiss tourist who visited Peru was diagnosed with the virus upon returning home and reporting symptoms and another 2013 study focused on 16 South Americans who contracted it in the Peruvian Amazon.
From May 2014 through February 2015, researchers at the University of Florida were studying a chikungunya outbreak in Haiti, obtaining 177 blood samples from children with febrile illnesses, screening them for the virus.
For patients who did not test positive for chikungunya or dengue virus, the researchers screened the children's blood for other viruses to determine the origins of their illness, according to the new study, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
In one child, who had chikungunya-like symptoms that developed later than would be expected for a patient with the virus, the researchers found more than one mosquito-borne virus. While his blood tested negative for chikungunya, the sample tested positive for dengue virus, and for Mayaro, which was verified by matching the bug's genome to strains available for comparison.
Researchers at UT noted in their 1999 study that Mayaro and dengue are difficult to tell apart clinically, and the symptoms of both infections are also similar to chikungunya: fever, joint pain, muscle pain and rashes.
Although UF researchers note that it is just one case, nearly all others have either been reported in South America, specifically near the Amazon, or in people who have recently traveled there, the potential for another mosquito-borne threat to health could be worth paying attention to.
"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."