According to the National Pesticide Information Center, mosquitoes are known to carry many infectious diseases from several different classes of microorganisms, including viruses and parasites. Mosquito-borne illnesses include malaria, West Nile virus, elephantiasis, dengue fever, yellow fever, and now the Zika virus.
Mosquito bites are not really bites as we commonly understand the term. The mosquito doesn’t take a bite out of the skin but sticks its tiny syringe-like mouth, called the proboscis, through the skin to draw blood for food.
In 1947, scientists studying in the Zika Forest near Lake Victoria in Uganda isolated a novel virus in a sick rhesus monkey. The researchers were able to extract and identify the virus and named it after the location where it was found. For decades, the Zika virus was limited to Africa, but started to spread in the early 21st century, most recently reaching crisis status in Brazil and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
How afraid should we be of mosquitos now? It depends, according to most experts. It depends on where you live (the farther from the Caribbean and Latin America, the better) and your overall health and age. The symptoms of Zika infection are typically mild or undetectable. However, the virus can cause serious birth defects that place women planning on becoming pregnant at serious risk.
The mosquito that transmits the Zika virus, the species Aedes aegypti, is different than native North American varieties. Zika mosquitoes have adapted to breed in trash and plastic, as opposed to the West Nile-bearing mosquitoes that breed in standing water. The explosion of plastic and rubber waste throughout Brazil is thought to be one of the reasons the virus spread there and beyond so quickly.
Zika has been detected in 12 U.S. states, mostly in the Southeast. Most experts believe that we’ll be dealing with this Aedes aegypti for years, even decades to come. How large might an outbreak be? That depends on a) whether the mosquitoes will migrate north on their own over time; and b) whether infected people in the U.S. transmit the virus to local mosquitos on a large scale. For this to happen, non-Zika mosquitos need to find an infected person, take a blood meal, not die, and go bite an uninfected person.
Another challenge is that many people who become infected with the Zika virus show no symptoms, so they don’t know they are carrying and may inadvertently be spreading the virus.
The best way to avoid the Zika virus is to avoid mosquitos. So, yes, you should be somewhat afraid of mosquitos this summer. The health risk to people not planning to have children is low, but the overall public health risk could increase without a collective effort. Eventually, most experts expect a vaccine to be developed, but that could take many years. Until then, cover your skin, use repellant. “Using an insect repellent is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from Zika and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes,” says Harry Savage, chief of ecology and entomology activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases.
Consumer Reports conducted a study of insect repellants specifically related to effectiveness against the Aedes aegypti. It found that “The most effective products against Aedes mosquitoes were Sawyer Picaridin and Natrapel 8 Hour, which each contains 20 percent picaridin and Off! Deepwoods VIII, which contains 25 percent deet. They kept the mosquitoes from biting for about 8 hours.”
The same study recommends avoiding “natural” insect repellents. It found that products using citronella, lemongrass oil, cedar oil, geraniol, rosemary oil, cinnamon oil, and lemongrass oil–common ingredients in these products–lasted less than an hour against Zika mosquitos or failed completely.
Also, Consumer Reports points out, natural products are not registered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates skin-applied repellents and evaluates them for safety and effectiveness. Most plant-oil products are exempt from scrutiny by the EPA because the agency considers them to be a minimum risk to human health. It recommends using only EPA registered products.
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