Clinics and hospitals throughout the Caribbean are seeing people by the thousands, all experiencing searing headaches, burning fever, and debilitating joint pains. These symptoms are characteristic of the chikungunya virus. Experts fear it’s only a matter of time before the outbreak reaches U.S. soil.

100 New Cases Every Day

Chikungunya, derived from the African word for “contorted with pain,” is a familiar condition for people of Africa and Asia. This is, however, the first time that any reported cases of the virus have appeared in the Caribbean, the Associated Press reported. The first documented case occurred in December 2013 on the island of French St. Martin. Now five months later, the numbers of cases are in the thousands. In the Dominican Republic alone, some hospitals report more than 100 new cases every day.

"It's building up like a snowball because of the constant movement of people," said Jacqueline Medina, a specialist at the Instituto Technologico university in the Dominican Republic, the AP reported. The Pan American Health Organization reports more than 55,000 suspected and confirmed cases of the virus since December throughout the Caribbean region.

United States May Be Next

Health officials have taken steps to slow down the virus’ spread by educating the public and attacking the mosquito population. It is feared that a similar outbreak will shortly be seen on U.S. soil due to the high amount of American tourists that travel to the Caribbean in the summer months. There have already been four imported cases of chikungunya reported in Florida in travelers to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Dominica.

"What we're seeing now is an increase in the number of infected travelers coming from the Caribbean, which is expected because there's a lot of U.S. travel, a lot of vacation travel, a lot of work travel," Dr. Roger Nasci, a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained to the AP.

How It Spreads

Chikungunya spreads when an infected individual arrives in an area with a certain type of mosquito. Under the right circumstances, the virus can also become airborne. Chikungunya is spread by two species of mosquitoes: aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus. In the U.S., these species are found throughout the southern and eastern states. Caribbean residents are now being urged to remove standing pools of water where mosquitoes are likely to breed. There have also been mass pesticide sprayings in many areas.

What It’s Like

Chikungunya’s symptoms are intense and painful. People report joint pain so severe that they have trouble walking. "You feel it in your bones, your fingers and your hands. It's like everything is coming apart," Sahira Francisco told the AP, as she waited for treatment at a hospital in the Dominican Republic. "It is terrible, I have never in my life gotten such an illness," explained Maria Norde, a 66-year-old woman confined to bed at her home on the lush eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. "All my joints are in pain."

It's Not All Dire

Fortunately, the virus is not life-threatening. Of the 55,000 cases in the Caribbean since December, there have only been seven reported deaths. All of the deceased were said to have underlying heath issues that also contributed to their deaths. Also if you’re unlucky enough to contract chikungunya, you will only have to experience its symptoms once in your life. Like the chicken pox, evidence suggests that once people get chikungunya and recover, they are immune to it for life.