I bet you have heard the news that there is a new mosquito borne illness in the Caribbean and encroaching into North America. Just when we thought we understood a bit about Dengue and Chikungunya, the Zika virus has arrived. These three mosquito borne illnesses have a lot in common: they are spread by the Yellow Fever, (Aedes aegypti) and the Asian Tiger (Aedes albopictus) mosquitoes and have similar symptoms. At this point there is no cure or vaccination for these illnesses and treatment is focused on relieving the symptoms.
The Zika virus is endemic to parts of Africa and Asia, but has recently spread to the western Hemisphere. Symptoms of the Zika disease can include mild fever, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis, malaise and headache. The symptoms are usually mild lasting for several days to a week and many people do not realize they have been infected. In rare cases the Zika virus can have serious complications. Zika infected mothers can give birth to babies with microcephaly; a condition where babies have abnormally small heads. There also appears to be a link to Zika virus and the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome. The Zika virus can be spread by body fluids. The incubation period, from bite to symptoms, is typically 3–12 days. A vaccination for Zika is being discussed, but it will be a while before it is available.
Chikungunya causes fever, muscle and joint pain, headache, nausea, fatigue and rash. The joint pain is often debilitating and can vary in duration. Dengue has similar symptoms as Chikungunya and Zika. Dengue causes flu-like symptoms, and occasionally develops into a potentially lethal complication called severe dengue.
Mosquito borne diseases spread over great distances. When an infected person travels and is bitten by an Aedes mosquito, it will pass on the virus when it bites another person exposing a new population to the disease. That is how the Zika virus has traveled from Africa to Brazil to Colorado, USA.
The key to managing these diseases is prevention. Eliminate habitat for the mosquitoes and your exposure to the mosquitos and their opportunities to bite you.
Aedes mosquitoes are often called house mosquitoes because they breed around houses in small containers of water. These mosquitoes are most active during the daylight hours, but have been known to bite at night. The mosquito rests indoors, in closets and other dark places and outside in shady calm spots. Both male and female feed on fruit and nectar; only the females bite humans to get the blood meal they need to mature eggs.
The key to managing these diseases is prevention. Eliminate habitat for the mosquitoes and your exposure to the mosquitos and their opportunities to bite you. Make sure you have no standing water on your boat or house and that includes very small containers of water. Change your pet’s water often. Boatyards are particularly good mosquito breeding grounds and I recommend taking a tour of the boatyard with the manager to find and eliminate standing water. During the rainy season this will require daily vigilance. Avoid the lee of the wind, shade and grassy areas.
If you know you are going to be exposed to mosquitoes, wear clothing that covers you, such as long sleeved shirts and long pants and use insect repellant.
The old standby is DEET and it does work, but it is strong stuff. Some people have reactions to DEET and DEET will melt plastics. There should be at least 25% DEET to be effective. Permethrin repellants are effective and can be used on clothing or directly on your skin and will repel mosquitoes. Permethrin is a synthetic chemical that acts like natural extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. Lemon Eucalyptus oil is a popular natural insect repellant and has become available by commercial companies. There are other herbal and natural formulas. I am a big fan of mosquito coils. You burn the coil near you and the incense like smoke repels mosquitoes. They work.
I have lived in Alaska and the Florida Everglades, so I have a lot of experience living with mosquitoes. I would like to share a few guidelines for using insect repellents. Apply repellents only to exposed skin or clothing, avoiding open cuts or irritated skin. Apply the repellent to the back of your hands and then apply to your face, ears and other exposed skin. Avoiding the repellant in your palms will help keep the repellant out of your mouth and eyes. Wash your hands after applying repellant. Help your children apply repellant. If you are using a spray walk away from others and go DOWNWIND to spray.
Editor’s note: As Devi points out, repellents are effective but please read all instructions carefully before use especially if using around young children. Burning coils might aggravate those who suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Devi Sharp is a retired wildlife biologist who spent eight years cruising the Caribbean with her husband Hunter on their sailboat, Arctic Tern. Devi and Hunter are now living on dirt in Western North Carolina.