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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Avoid mosquito contact

Published: Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Health Department columnist

If you read or listen to the news, then you’re aware that MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), a viral respiratory illness, is in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is concerned because most people who have been confirmed with the infection developed severe acute respiratory illness, and sadly, about 30 percent of these people died.

The CDC states that U.S. cases of MERS represent a very low risk to the general public. You are not considered to be at risk for MERS infection if you have not had close contact, such as caring for or living with someone who is being evaluated for MERS. Close contact is the key.

Unfortunately, close contact with mosquitoes is a threat that’s hard to avoid, but it is one we can control.

And with summer coming quickly, now’s a good time to think about steps you can take to avoid their bite.

It’s not the mosquito but its bite that can cause serious human illness. Mosquitoes can transmit viral diseases called arboviruses that are also known as vector-borne diseases. This happens mostly in June through September, when mosquitoes are most active. In North Carolina, the three most common arboviruses are La Crosse encephalitis (LAC), West Nile virus (WNV) and Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE).

With nearly 3,000 different species of mosquitoes throughout the world, North Carolina is home to 61. But not all mosquitoes are bad — only 10 to 15 of the species found in North Carolina bite people, and it’s only the females that bite. The males are content to feed on plant nectar and juices.

The “tiger” mosquito is one of North Carolina’s worst pests. This aggressive biter, about an eighth of an inch long, is persistent and will bite anytime during the day. Its body is black with white stripes on its legs and body, and a single white strip down the center of its head and back.

The tree hole mosquito (Aedes triseriatus), as its name implies, breeds in water-holding tree holes (pockets of rainwater that collect between the trunks of trees). But any water-collecting containers or old tires will also work for breeding if there’s shade and proximity to people. These mosquitoes, which congregate in high numbers in wooded areas, usually stay within 200 yards of the area where they reproduced.

In North Carolina, human arbovirus cases that cause severe neurological illness are reported to the state and to the CDC. La Crosse encephalitis (LAC), the most frequently reported arboviral illness in our state, is transmitted by mosquito species that breed in tree holes or in small containers that hold water. Most reported cases of LAC have occurred in the mountain counties of Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson, primarily in children younger than 14.

According to the CDC, many people infected with LAC have no apparent symptoms. For people who become ill, early symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and tiredness. Some will develop a disease that affects the nervous system; it often involves encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain) and can include seizures, coma and paralysis. Severe disease occurs most often in children younger than 16. If you or a family member has symptoms of LAC, see a health care provider immediately for a diagnosis.

It’s wise to be aware of these serious mosquito-borne illnesses, but you can still enjoy the warm weather by taking steps to minimize mosquito contact:

- Minimize time outdoors between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.

- Repair holes in window screens.

- Wear shoes, socks, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt when planning to be outdoors for a long time.

- Always follow product instructions when using insect repellent. Apply repellent to clothes when possible and always sparingly to exposed skin. Ask your health care provider before using repellents on children.

- Reduce the mosquito population by getting rid of breeding places. This includes removing all standing water, changing the water in birdbaths and plant trays weekly, and keeping your lawn cut short.

Many people believe that spraying insecticides is the answer. Fogging an area from either specially equipped trucks or from an aerosol can is effective for controlling adult mosquitoes but only for a short time. It doesn’t take long for these pests to return when the spray dissipates. But there’s no need to feel helpless. Take precautions to avoid contact, watch for mosquito-borne illnesses and protect your children.

For more information, visit http://epi.publichealth.nc.gov/cd/diseases/arbo.html.

Kim Horton is the information and communications specialist at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org. For further information about the Department of Public Health, please visit our website: http://www.hendersoncountync.org/health.

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