Public Health on high alert for Zika as mosquito season arrives
May 27, 2017--10:20 a.m.
Mosquito season is arriving and with it the threat of mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, now firmly entrenched in the U.S., and the emerging infectious disease, first appearing here in late 2015 and whose horrific effects we’re still learning about, Zika virus. Public health officials in Northwest Georgia are ramping up their prevention efforts and urging area residents to help control local mosquito populations by tipping or tossing away any containers in their yards that can hold water, thereby eliminating potential breeding areas.
Environmental health specialists from county health departments have begun conducting local mosquito surveillance in accordance with the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Zika Preparedness and Response Action Plan. They’re trapping, collecting, and identifying local mosquitoes, hoping they don’t find the Aedes aegypti species, the so-called yellow fever mosquito that loves to feed on humans and is the most competent of the Zika-transmitting mosquitoes. The yellow fever mosquito has previously been identified in Georgia only in a very limited area near Columbus, but could be elsewhere, hence the surveillance.
Another mosquito commonly found throughout the state, Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, can also transmit Zika virus. However, it prefers to feed on animals instead of humans, so it’s not as competent transmitting the disease as Aedes aegypti.
Bites from another type of mosquito commonly found in Northwest Georgia, Culex quinquefasciatus, the southern house mosquito, can transmit the deadly West Nile virus, which now regularly occurs throughout the country. Georgia confirmed seven West Nile cases in 2016, fortunately no deaths.
Since Zika virus first appeared in the U.S., in 2016, all 118 Georgia cases -- just 4 so far this year -- have been travel related, someone has become infected in an area where there is active Zika transmission. But local transmission has occurred in Florida and Texas, and public health officials are concerned that it could happen in Georgia, too.
“Local Zika transmission is something we hope will never happen,” says Tim Allee, environmental health director for the Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District, “but conceivably could, so we’ve been preparing for that possibility.” How might that happen?
“If a mosquito bites an infected person while the virus is still in that person’s blood, it gets infected and can spread the virus when biting another person,” Allee explains. “So even if they don’t feel sick or have symptoms, travelers returning to the U.S., from an area with Zika should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks so that they don’t spread Zika to mosquitoes, who can then spread Zika to other people, which would be local transmission.”
Other travel-related Zika guidance urges pregnant women to avoid travel to affected countries and advises female travelers who are considering pregnancy to talk to their doctors before heading to those destinations. If a pregnant woman or her partner travel to an area with risk of Zika, the couple should use condoms from start to finish every time they have sex or not have sex for the entire pregnancy, even if the traveler does not have symptoms of Zika or feel sick. A continuously updated world map showing areas with risk of Zika may be found here.
Currently, no vaccine is available for Zika virus, so the best way to prevent becoming infected with Zika or another mosquito-borne disease, such as West Nile, is by avoiding mosquito bites. This can be done by reducing exposure through maximizing time indoors, wearing appropriate mosquito repellant products, such as DEET products, and wearing clothes that minimize skin exposure. Reducing local mosquito populations around your home is another key.
Tip ‘n Toss
Public health officials are emphasizing that one of the most effective ways to control local mosquito populations and prevent the spread of mosquito-borne disease is by eliminating standing water around the home and in the yard, especially in any sort or size of container. “Tip ‘n Toss -- it’s a habit we wish everyone would develop and practice year-round,” says Allee.
“We’re urging people to clean up around their homes and yards to eliminate potential mosquito breeding areas,” Allee says, “then continue practicing Tip ‘n Toss, especially after every rainfall, through the summer months, into the fall and over the winter. If you have things in and around your home and yard that can hold water, even old bottle caps or upturned magnolia leaves, get rid of them. After every rainfall, and at least once a week, Tip ‘n Toss.”
“Dump out standing water in flowerpots and planters, children’s toys, or trash containers. Don’t allow water to accumulate in old tires, rain gutters, piles of leaves, or natural holes in vegetation. Tightly cover water storage containers, such as buckets, cisterns, and rain barrels, so that mosquitoes cannot get inside to lay eggs. For containers without lids and too big to Tip ‘N Toss, such as bird baths and pools) use larvicides such as mosquito dunks or mosquito torpedoes -- they will not hurt birds or animals.”
“Most mosquitoes often stay within several hundred feet of where they’re hatched,” Allee says, “so you can significantly reduce the number of mosquitoes around your home by doing this.” Of course, mosquitoes don’t recognize property lines, so “controlling their numbers has to be a collaborative effort among neighbors,” Allee stresses.
Adult mosquitoes live inside and outside, so keep mosquitoes out of your home. Use screens on windows and doors, making sure they are in good repair and fit tightly. Use air conditioning when it’s available. Mosquitoes are not strong fliers, so using fans on porches and patios can also help reduce mosquito exposure.
Using personal protection to avoid mosquito bites when engaging in outdoor activities is also important, says Allee. “Wear lightweight long-sleeve shirts, long pants and socks. Using EPA-registered insect repellents containing 20%-30% DEET or a product such as oil of lemon eucalyptus will reduce exposure to mosquitoes.” For more information on EPA-registered insect repellants, visit https://www.epa.gov/insect-repellents/find-insect-repellent-right-you
For more information on how to prevent mosquito bites, visit www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention/prevent-mosquito-bites.html
For more information about Zika preparedness, how to reduce the mosquito population around your home, and how to protect yourself and your loved ones from Zika virus, visit cdc.gov/zika, dph.georgia.gov/zika, nwgapublichealth.org/zika-virus-need-know/, or contact the Environmental Health office of your local county health department.