NC professor researches vaccine for chikungunya

by: Tenikka Smith Updated:


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Channel 9 talked to a North Carolina professor who's done extensive research on the chikungunya virus, which has now been confirmed in Cabarrus County.

He told Eyewitness News he's working with a team of researchers to create new medicines to protect people from the virus that could start showing up in people who have never left the country.

It's hard to avoid insects when you work outside like the vendors with the Piedmont Farmer's Market in Cabarrus County.

Some are taking precautions.

"At one of our markets there's a small pond at that market and I did have a vendor that would burn the little citronella candles, and she always had the mosquito spray with her,” Market manager Lisa Wacheldorf said.

Ten cases of chikungunya have surfaced across the state, the latest in Cabarrus County.  All of them picked up the virus while traveling in the Caribbean.

UNC Chapel Hill Professor Dr. Mark Heise has spent nearly 20 years studying mosquito-borne viruses.

CDC: Chikungunya virus

His research team is now looking at the possibility people could contract the virus right here in the U.S., like the two cases in Florida.

"I think something people need to be aware of and many health professionals need to look out for localized spread, but I also don’t think it’s something that people need to panic about either,” Heise said.

Heise said chikungunya is rarely fatal.  Most people recover after about a week and don't have any long term symptoms or recurrence.

He said the virus can be tough on the elderly population, especially those with other joint or medical conditions. They could have symptoms for several months or a few years.

Heise is joining top scientists from around the country to create an Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. 

Their work will focus on developing drugs against certain viruses, including chikungunya since there's no vaccine or treatment right now.

"It's something you have to think about because nobody needs to get sick,” Wacheldorf said.

The Cabarrus Health Alliance said if the virus does develop locally, like the two cases in Florida, it will reach out to state officials to figure out what action to take next.

Read our past coverage:

Chikungunya virus contracted in U.S. for first time

2 Fla. cases of mosquito virus contracted in US

NC scientists scramble to create vaccine for chikungunya

Mosquito-borne virus reported in South Carolina

Cabarrus Co. health officials confirm case of chikungunya