Pitt professors join study of viral disease

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A mosquito-borne disease that originated in Africa and elsewhere that has not been found yet in the United States is causing concerns among health officials, and now the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research has joined a group of top virologists around the world to respond to the recent spread of the disease, caused by the chikungunya virus.

The virus causes fever and joint pain and has now been reported in the Caribbean and South America. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization first reported that mosquitoes on the island of Saint Martin were infected with chikungunya and were spreading it to people in December.

As of Friday, cases were reported in these countries: Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Martinique, Guadaloupe, Saint Barthelmy, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, French Guiana, Anguilla, St. Kitts and the Dominican Republic. Outbreaks are expected soon in the United States.

The new Global Virus Network Chikungunya Task Force, with the Pitt scientists as members, was announced yesterday as part of World Health Day 2014.

Travelers to the affected countries are advised to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes through protective clothing, insect repellent and sleeping in screened rooms or under bed nets outdoors.

There is no specific antiviral drug treatment for chikungunya, which can resemble dengue fever, also spread by mosquitoes.

The task force's 16 virologists represent nine countries. William B. Klimstra and Kate D. Ryman, both associate professors at Pitt, along with others, will represent the United States. The other countries include the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Sweden, Grenada, Estonia, South Africa and Thailand. Much of their effort will focus on faster identification of infections, improved treatment options and the development of an effective vaccine.

A vaccine against chikungunya is a focus of work at Pitt in both the Klimstra and Ryman laboratories.

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