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Public Health Column for the Times-News

The other risks from mosquitoes

Published: Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Health Department columnist

Mosquitoes are pests. The red bump and itching caused by an allergic reaction to the female mosquito’s saliva when it bites you is bad enough.

But they also carry diseases that afflict humans as well as animals. And while the national news may be focused on the Zika virus and its prevention, Western North Carolina has its own mosquito- borne diseases to be concerned about, particularly West Nile Virus and La Crosse encephalitis.

Mosquitoes can spread West Nile Virus to humans after feeding on infected birds. In a very small number of cases, WNV also has been spread from an infected person through blood transfusions, organ transplants, breastfeeding and from mother to baby during pregnancy.

It is not spread through casual contact such as touching or kissing a person with the virus.

While WNV can be a serious disease, most people infected with it will have no symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 150 people infected with WNV will develop severe illness. Symptoms can include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, convulsions, muscle weakness, paralysis, and in some cases, lasting neurological effects.

Those who develop symptoms of severe WNV illness should seek medical attention immediately. Pregnant women and nursing mothers are encouraged to talk to their doctor if they develop symptoms that could be WNV. People over the age of 50 are more likely to develop serious symptoms of WNV if they do get sick and should take special care to avoid mosquito bites.

Another serious risk from mosquito bites is La Crosse encephalitis virus, the most frequently reported mosquito-borne illness in our state. In fact, the majority of reported cases of LACV have occurred in the mountain counties of Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson, primarily in children under the age of 14.

According to the CDC, many people infected with LACV have no apparent symptoms. For people who do 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 under the age of 16. If you or a family member has symptoms of LACV, see a health care provider immediately for a diagnosis.

Avoiding mosquito bites is the only way to prevent being infected with these diseases, and this includes using means to protect yourself and your family. Insect repellent is an effective means when you know you’re going to be outside. But perhaps you’re wondering about the health department’s mosquito spraying program. Would large-scale aerosol spraying eliminate mosquitoes in your neighborhood?

Spraying will temporarily reduce nuisance levels of adult mosquitoes in a small area, but it will not significantly reduce the community level risk of acquiring mosquito-borne viruses on a day to day basis. True reduction of risk is directly associated with strategies for personal protection and elimination of breeding habitat. And unfortunately spraying doesn’t touch certain species, such as Asian tiger mosquitoes, that breed in tree-holes or small containers that hold water. In fact, LACV is transmitted by mosquito species that breed in these very places.

The bottom line is that the best protection against mosquito bites will come from individuals and neighborhoods using personal protection such as insect repellent, protecting homes with screening, and reducing mosquito breeding places around homes and neighborhoods. It doesn’t hurt to repeat the specifics: Use an insect spray with DEET on exposed skin. When outdoors, wear long pants and sleeves.

Don’t forget to protect your home. Repair or replace screens on windows and doors. Use air conditioning if available. Keep the air moving with fans.

Reduce the mosquito population by getting rid of breeding places. This requires weekly vigilance to tip and toss any standing water. Scrub, turn over, cover or throw out items that hold water, such as tires, buckets, tarps, clogged gutters, planters, toys, pools, birdbaths, flowerpots, trash containers and tree-holes (e.g., knot-holes). To learn more about all the places that mosquitoes can breed, watch a short video, 5-Minute Asian Tiger Control, on the health department’s website, hendersoncountync.org/health.

It’s only July with plenty of summer left to enjoy. But with plenty of mosquitoes left to reproduce, I can guarantee that you will enjoy your summer more by minimizing mosquito contact and breeding locations.

More information about mosquito-borne diseases can be found at hendersoncountync.org/health.

Kimberly 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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Department of Public Health • 1200 Spartanburg Highway, Suite 100 • Hendersonville, NC 28792 • (828) 692-4223