Chikungunya: Causes and How It Spreads

Key points

  • Chikungunya virus disease (chikungunya) is caused by a virus primarily spread to people through the bite of infected mosquitoes.
  • If infected, people can spread the virus to mosquitoes and rarely to other people.
  • The risk of a person spreading the virus is highest during the first week of illness.
A female Aedes aegypti mosquito while she in the process of acquiring a blood meal from her human host

Primary cause

Chikungunya is caused by a virus that can be found in many parts of the world, including Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The virus belongs to a group of viruses called alphaviruses. Other alphaviruses causing a similar disease include Mayaro virus and Ross River virus.

How it spreads

  • People can become infected with chikungunya virus when mosquitoes feed on another infected person and then bite them.
    • People infected with chikungunya virus have high enough levels of virus in their blood (viremia) during the first few days of illness to transmit the virus to mosquitoes.
    • Prevent getting infected with chikungunya virus by preventing mosquito bites and getting vaccinated before traveling, if vaccination is recommended for you.
  • Because of the high level of virus in blood, spread can occur through:
    • Blood transfusion
    • Handling infected blood in the laboratory
    • Drawing blood from an infected patient
  • The virus is not spread from person-to-person and is not spread through coughing, sneezing, or touching.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

  • Rarely the infection can be spread from a pregnant person to their unborn baby, mostly during the second trimester.
  • If the pregnant person is infected around the time of delivery, the baby can be infected at birth (i.e., intrapartum transmission), often resulting in severe disease in the baby.
  • Chikungunya virus has not been found in breast milk, and there have been no reports to date of infants being infected through breastfeeding.
    • Talk to your doctor if you are breastfeeding and have chikungunya or if you are in an area where the virus is circulating.