I’ve seen you writing a lot about Zika virus, and I’m planning on starting a family soon. I was wondering, how worried do I need to be about this and how can I avoid the virus?
A lot of what I’ve written about Zika hasn’t been a user submission, but this one is. I’ve had several people ask me this question, mainly in person and through my personal email. It’s also one that I’m making anonymous, due to the intimate nature of family planning.
Before I write anything about this topic, I want to say that I’m not going to give anyone advice on whether to start a family. If it’s something you want to do, you should do it. It’s not my place to tell you not to do that. Frankly, it’s a personal decision.
That being said, a lot of people are still worried about Zika. I think people should keep an eye on the news to see what’s going on with this particular virus, but we also shouldn’t forget that Zika isn’t the only illness transmitted by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes also aren’t the only arthropods which spread disease. Ticks are in there, as well.
A lot of these diseases are things you’ve probably heard about somewhere. Examples of mosquito borne disease are Equine Encephalitis Virus (both Western and Eastern), LaCrosse Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, and Chikungunya. Ticks transmit Lyme disease, Rocky Mountian Spotted Fever, Powassan Virus, and Heartland Virus. This isn’t a complete list, but these are the ones which tend to be discussed in the news every year.
So while this question was about Zika specifically, I do think the answer these people were looking for is applicable in a much broader sense. Even without Zika, mosquitoes are bad news for public health. So mosquito prevention is definitely something which applies to everyone, especially at this time of year. It’s the right question, at the right time to be helpful to a lot of people.
First things first…the most important thing is this: I still don’t think people in the mainland US need to be super worried about Zika. Yet.
Don’t worry until there’s evidence of a problem.
The most important thing is this: Zika hasn’t begun transmitting in the Continental US yet. It’s transmitting in Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. The Continental US (where these questions are from), hasn’t seen mosquito transmission yet.
A lot of the measures the government takes to look for Zika doesn’t make the news, so this is something that really bears a discussion. There’s an intense search for the virus right now, and some of those efforts are more publicized than others.
The CDC monitors people who go to the doctor for traces of Zika, and lots of imported cases have been found. This isn’t perfect, because only about 20% of infected people get symptoms, but it’s better than nothing. Also, most people wouldn’t consent to have their blood drawn in airports. There’s another series of efforts which are being undertaken, however. It’s also something I’ve glossed over when talking about the topic of mosquito control.
Mosquito control is something that’s highly precise. Mosquito control agencies regularly collect mosquitoes, and test the mosquitoes for viruses. Pesticide sprays tend to be targeted to areas where mosquito-carried diseases have been found. This saves money, but also prevents people from being unnecessarily exposed to insecticides.
This approach is also great for figuring out whether the disease has reached mosquito populations. After cases are found, the patients are isolated until the disease is gone. However, since many people with Zika don’t have symptoms…it’s very likely most cases have gotten through surveillance. This will catch those cases, hopefully before transmission is widespread.
So don’t panic until there’s evidence of a problem. The government has your back on this one. If you’re curious about what this sort of testing entails, journalist Waldo Cabrera has an excellent two-part series on mosquito monitoring.
Household mosquito and tick control
There’s a lot people can do, even around their own house. I did an interview for Radio America awhile back, where I went through a lot of these tips and tricks. Corombo noted, quite correctly, that this is the same advice which gets discussed every summer.
Eliminate as many mosquito breeding grounds as you can
Mosquitoes breed in pooling water, which is a very common part of the environment. Taking out the breeding grounds, by draining flowerpots and bird baths is a very useful first step. Remove all trash from your yard, and any yard toys your kids might leave out in the rain. Inspect all tree hollows for water, and drain if possible. If there’s a large body of water that’s impractical to drain, Bt bricks can be bought online for cheap.
You can reduce mosquito populations by a lot when you do this, but habitat destruction isn’t enough to completely eliminate mosquitoes. It’s virtually impossible to find every breeding ground, because mosquitoes need only three drops of water to make it to adulthood. A big impact can be made, but the population won’t reach 0.
Female mosquitoes will even lay their eggs in bottlecaps, and it only takes about a week for them to emerge under the best conditions.
— CC Mosquito & Vector (@CCMosquito) September 24, 2015
Granted, the mosquitoes in this picture are Culex, which aren’t known to transmit Zika. However, the Zika-transmitting Aedes prefers similar habitats.
Ticks tend to hang out in woodlands, where they can find lots of furry woodland critters. A lot of the ticks people find tend to be on pets, but you should always check yourself after spending time outdoors. They’ll prefer the dark and sweaty areas with high blood flow. Places like inside your bellybutton, around the ears, and behind the knees. The waist, armpit, and groin regions are also highly preferred…and are hard to check.
If you find a tick, there’s a correct way to remove them. Removing a tick the wrong way isn’t just uncomfortable, it can help the tick transmit the disease quicker. Bug Girl’s blog has a good removal guide, and you should also try to save the tick for a few weeks just in case a disease develops. ID and testing of the tick can be really helpful with diagnosis.
Avoiding Mosquitoes and Ticks
There are two things you can do to avoid mosquitoes and ticks. The first is to wear insect repellent. DEET, IR3535 (found in Avon Skin so Soft lotion), and Picaradin are the active ingredients with the most evidence behind them. A lot of repellents on the market don’t work as advertised, so be careful what you buy. Also, these repellents work to repel ticks as well. There’s dual protection here.
The next thing you can do is to wear light-colored clothing. Mosquitoes are attracted to darker colors, so a lighter summer wardrobe will help protect you. Plus, it’s going to keep you cooler through the summer months.
When trekking through the woods, tuck your socks into your pants. It looks super nerdy, but it keeps ticks from being able to crawl into your pants.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot you can do to avoid mosquitoes during the summer, when they’re out.
Even if Zika wasn’t in the news, avoiding mosquitoes would still be a great idea. There are other diseases-even more devastating than Zika-which are commonly spread by mosquitoes. Eastern Equine Encephalitis, for example, kills about one third of the people who are infected. Of the survivors, about one third are disabled for life. It’s pretty rare, but that’s thanks to mosquito control efforts. Lyme disease is also out, and is increasing in range thanks to a changing climate.
So have a great summer, and do what you can to avoid mosquitoes and ticks. Even without the spectre of Zika, mosquitoes and ticks can still be very bad news.