Chikungunya: History and Popular Culture

Africa is a continent made famous (or infamous) by the many strange diseases running rampant there. From Malaria to Ebola, Africa has made the news for being “the place” to go to catch a disease. It is incredibly difficult to NOT be aware of the many viruses in Africa, but it takes a certain kind of sleuth to locate the really strange ones. I happen to be quite the sleuth. Actually, USA Today did the detective work while I did the reading. As it would turn out, my addiction to popular culture and trashy celebrity news proved to be beneficial this time. I was surfing the web when I was struck by the headline “Lindsay Lohan Battles Chikungunya Virus”. I had to read on. What was this virus? Where did she catch it? Is she going to die? Am I going to catch it and die? I began my research.

The chikungunya virus is a mosquito borne RNA virus in the alphavirus genus of the family Togaviridae. That is a lot to take in. Basically it means the virus is icosahedral, enveloped, and contains a linear segmented genome. The virus is replicated and assembled in the cytoplasm (as is common for RNA viruses), and released via secretion.

Apparently, chikungunya is not only found in Africa (Lindsay Lohan contracted it while taking a “relaxing” vacation in French Polynesia). It is most commonly found in Asia, India (as well as the Asian pacific island regions), and Africa. The first occurrence of this virus was in 1952 in the African region between Mozambique and Tanzania. Its name is derived from the regional word for “that which bends up”, and is based on a Makonde root word meaning “to dry up and become contorted”. Named after the symptoms observed in the patients, this disease causes fever, and more notably, sever arthritic pain in joints. This pain is known to cause the victim to hunch over while walking, and in Swahili chikungunya means “illness of the bent walker”.  Other symptoms include nausea, headache, muscle pain, rash, and fatigue. The symptoms in the literature seemed consistent with those seen in Lindsay; she helpfully kept readers up to date on her symptoms via Instagram posts.

Luckily for Lindsay, doctors were able to successfully diagnose the disease; others have not been so fortunate. Chikungunya has proven to be difficult to diagnose in regions where dengue fever is prevalent. Chikungunya and Dengue have similar symptoms and can often lead to a false diagnosis. However, for chikungunya there was not, and is still not, a cure. The history of treatment has been simply to alleviate the symptoms.

Lindsay Lohan may be one of the more recent (and highly publicized) cases of chikungunya, despite the fact that human outbreaks were not common in history. Today, outbreaks of chikungunya are STILL not common in humans. The zoonotic virus typically transfers mainly between mosquitoes and non-human primates such as monkeys and gorillas, but humans can be at risk. In some areas of Africa, such as countries surrounding the affected region, mosquitoes carried chikungunya to humans who have never been exposed to the virus, thus the virus spread. It is common for the disease to run in two year cycles. In the past, approximately every two years saw a new outbreak, however history is peppered with random outbreaks between the two year cycles. Chikungunya has spread from Africa to more than 40 countries worldwide.

So to answer my initial questions about the virus, Lindsay Lohan caught chikungunya from a mosquito bite in the French Polynesia. No, she is not going to die from this disease but she spent most of her Christmas Polynesian retreat sweating out a fever and popping pain killers for joint discomfort. As for me contracting chikungunya, the probability is low. I just need some mosquito repellent and sunscreen and I’m free to join Lindsay Lohan on the beach.

chikungunya 2

More information can be found here:  

Read more about Lindsay Lohan’s experience here:


cover image:

text image:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s