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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Zika puts spotlight on mosquito bite prevention

Published: Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Health Department columnist

One sure way to alarm yourself is to read about a virus delivered by a mosquito that you have little control over. When you learn how this virus may adversely affect pregnant women and babies, your anxiety increases even more. If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the worry index creeps higher. No one can blame you. Zika virus is in the media every day.

Zika is not a new virus, but there are still many unknowns. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention, Zika is a disease caused by a virus that is spread to people usually from an infected Aedes species mosquito. These are the same kind of mosquitoes that spread Chikungunya and Dengue. These mosquitoes are aggressive daytime biters, but they also bite at night.

Common symptoms of Zika virus infection are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week. People usually don't get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. Complications may include a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

For a pregnant woman, Zika virus can be transmitted to her fetus during any stage of pregnancy or at the time of birth. Additionally, Zika virus has been found in the semen of men who have had Zika infection, and it is unknown how long it remains there. The effects of Zika infection are more serious for the fetus than the mother and include microcephaly and other poor outcomes. The CDC recommends that women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy avoid travel to Zika affected areas and protect themselves from their partners who could transmit to them through sex. If you are concerned about your own pregnancy, please talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns.

Do we need to be concerned about Zika in Henderson County? To date, Zika virus has not been identified in the mosquitos in the continental United States. Limited local transmission may occur from infected travelers, but it's unlikely that we will see widespread transmission of Zika in the mainland U.S., according to the CDC.

What we do need to be concerned about locally is LaCross encephalitis and West Nile virus, two viruses that are transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. Most of the time, these viruses cause either no symptoms or mild, flu-like illness. But they can cause more serious conditions, including encephalitis, meningitis and meningoencephalitis, and can be fatal.

LAC, the most frequently reported mosquito-borne illness in North Carolina, is transmitted by mosquito species that breed in tree-holes or small containers that hold water. Most cases have occurred in the mountain counties of Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson, and among children under the age of 14. In 2012, 26 cases of LAC occurred in 10 counties. From 2003 to 2012, N.C. had 187 cases of LAC, distributed over 27 counties.

Obviously, protecting ourselves from mosquito bites should be the plan, but what does protection look like? Mosquito-borne illness can be prevented in two main ways: reducing the number of infected mosquitoes and using personal protection measures from mosquito bites.

Does mosquito spraying reduce the threat from mosquito-borne infections? Spraying does eliminate adult mosquitoes that fly through the spray mist, but it doesn't touch the mosquitoes that attack during the day. Additionally, the health department's spraying program has limited availability. Over the last several years, the N.C. legislature has cut funding for long-term mosquito surveillance and control programs.

Henderson County provided funding for mosquito spraying in the 2015-16 budget, but the protection it offers is limited by funding year to year and how many areas can be sprayed. It may give people a false sense of protection. The responsibility for mosquito control will always come back to individual prevention around our homes.

So even though most cases of mosquito-borne illness occur from June through September, you can start measures now to reduce the mosquito breeding areas around your home and yard.

"Empty, recycle or throw away items around your home that hold water, especially old tires," said Seth Swift, environmental health director. "Make sure rain gutters are clean and in good repair. Repair screens. Make sure that outdoor faucets are not leaking, and fill in potholes and other areas that may hold water. Later in the year when mosquitoes are active, empty and refill bird baths and pet bowls every three to four days."

Personal measures to reduce mosquito bites include:

  • Reducing time outdoors, particularly in early morning and early evening hours;
  • Using air conditioning and window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside;
  • Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts when outside;
  • Applying Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents to exposed skin areas. All EPA-registered insect repellents are evaluated for safety and effectiveness.

If you have a baby or child:

  • Do not use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months of age.
  • Dress your child in clothing that covers arms and legs, or cover crib, stroller and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
  • Do not apply insect repellent onto a child's hands, eyes, mouth and cut or irritated skin. Instead spray insect repellent onto your hands and then apply to a child's face.

Mosquito control efforts effectively begin at the local level, more specifically with each individual. Learn more about Zika and mosquito bite protection at www.hendersoncountync.org/health.

Kim Horton is the communications manager at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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