Worried about Zika, West Nile? Expert advice to prevent mosquito bites

The Aedes aegypti mosquito can infect humans with the Zika virus when it takes a blood meal. SANOFI PASTEUR / FLICKRCC / TNS

Credit: Sanofi Pasteur

Credit: Sanofi Pasteur

The Aedes aegypti mosquito can infect humans with the Zika virus when it takes a blood meal. SANOFI PASTEUR / FLICKRCC / TNS

Everyone wants to avoid mosquito bites, but the Zika virus — and the mosquitoes that carry the virus — have heightened the level of concern this summer.

And in Georgia, the West Nile virus is always a reason to be careful in the summer.

Zika has swept across more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with Brazil, which is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, being hardest hit.

The Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito and can cause the severe birth defect known as microcephaly, in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges pregnant women to avoid traveling to any country where the Zika virus is spreading(For more information, go to www.cdc.gov/zika.)

Currently, the Zika virus is not transmitted by mosquitoes in the United States, but travelers returning from areas where the virus is being spread could become sick after returning home, according to the Georgia Department of Health. There have been 26 travel-related cases of Zika in Georgia. All of those infected have recovered, according to DPH.

Experts say there’s no reason to panic about Zika. In Georgia, the mosquito that is known to carry Zika — Aedes aegypti — is extremely rare, according to Elmer Gray, an entomologist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. A small population is found in Columbus each year. With a relatively low number of travel-related cases diagnosed among Georgians so far, Gray believes that means the chance of a large-scale outbreak here is low.

Meanwhile, Gray said he is more concerned about the West Nile virus this summer in Georgia. So far this season, there have been no reported cases, but it’s still early in the season with West Nile typically peaking in August and September.

West Nile is most often carried in Georgia by the Southern house mosquito. These mosquitoes like it dry — kind of like it’s been in recent weeks. They hang out in storm drains. And when there is little rain, water pools inside these drains, creating a perfect breeding ground for the Southern house mosquitoes. When it rains a lot, you are less likely to see West Nile cases because frequent rains wash the mosquito larvae out of the storm drains.

Georgia is home to 63 mosquito species. And when it comes to battling mosquitoes of all kinds, vigilance is the key, Gray said.

“It’s about being diligent and paying attention and keeping tabs on things — keep your eyes open when mowing grass, keep an eye out for standing water, keep the gutters cleaned,” Gray said.

Eliminating larval habitats, wherever possible, is the key to reducing mosquito populations. Here are some tips from UGA’s Gray to avoid being bitten.

1. Mosquitoes need standing water to reproduce, so eliminate sources of standing water in yards and landscapes. Be on the lookout for abandoned planters and flowerpot saucers, mop buckets, toys, overturned Frisbees and anything else that can hold water. Larvicidal briquettes are available to treat water gardens, rain gardens, clogged drainage ditches or any other permanent landscape feature that holds water for more than a week.

2. Keeping grass trimmed and the vegetation around the borders of the yards cut back can also help reduce the areas where adult mosquitoes hide during the heat of the day.

3. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, so people may want to stay inside during those times to avoid bites. Gray also recommends checking, repairing and replacing window screens at this time of year to keep mosquitoes from making their way inside. Note: Aedes aegypti, the mosquito primarily spreading Zika, however, is a day biter.

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4. Wearing light-colored clothing will help keep mosquitoes at bay. Mosquitoes are more attracted to people wearing darker colors because they stand out more. Gray notes they’ve come a long way with more fashionable clothing to protect people from the sun and bugs.

5. When outside in a mosquito-prone area — like on a ballfield, out in the yard or out in the woods, Gray said the most effective thing people can do to protect themselves is to use insect repellent. There are several commercially available, EPA-approved repellents, like picaridin, lemon eucalyptus oil and IR3535. Gray prefers products with DEET because they have been tested and proved safe for children as young as 2 months old. A product with a 10 percent to 30 percent concentration is good and protects for several hours. Gray said. When treating children, an adult should apply the repellent to his or her hands first and then rub the repellent onto the child's exposed skin, but never to a child's hands. Small children have a habit of sticking their hands in their mouths, and if they apply the repellent themselves, there's a good chance they'll ingest some of it, he added.

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