Insect spread illnesses on the rise: how to protect your family

by Guest Blogger on August 6, 2012

By  Carolyn Moriarty

If you’ve been watching the news recently, you’re probably aware that mosquitos carrying eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) have been found in various areas across the country, including Massachusetts. EEE—and its less-dangerous counterpart, West Nile Virus—are two diseases that are spread to people by the bites of infected mosquitos. Boston Children’s Hospital’s Asim Ahmed, MD, from the Division of Infectious Diseases, recently spoke to NECN about the current West Nile outbreak, which Federal health officials are calling one of the largest in the U.S., with four times the usual number of cases for this time of year.

EEE is considered to be one of the most serious mosquito-borne illnesses in the United States. Inflammation of the brain, or encephalitis, is a frequent and life-threatening complication of EEE that may also lead to permanent neurological damage or coma. West Nile Virus is a much milder infection characterized by flu-like symptoms that generally go away on their own.

There are things that area and state governments are doing to reduce and eliminate mosquito-borne illnesses. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) is constantly monitoring mosquito populations and deciding if and when aerial spraying is necessary.

Here are a few quick and easy things you can do to lessen your child’s (and your) risk of being bitten by a mosquito:

  • Since mosquitoes are typically most active during dusk and dawn, make afternoon the time for outdoor play.
  • When out at dusk or dawn, dress in socks, pants and long-sleeved shirts that cover the skin.
  • Wear light-colored clothing whenever possible, since mosquitoes are attracted to darker colors
  • Avoid areas of calm, still water, like ponds, wells and birdbaths (this is where mosquitos lay their eggs).

Of course, insect repellant is the most effective way to avoid mosquito bites. There are many products that are made to prevent bug bites, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) the most effective are those that contain the ingredient DEET (usually listed on labels as N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide).

DEET can be toxic, so it’s important to be especially careful when applying it to children. The AAP also recommends that repellants containing more than 30 percent DEET should not be used on children, and not to use it on infants younger than 2 months old.

Here are some additional tips about applying insect repellants:

  • DON’T apply repellant directly onto a child’s face. Instead, spray a little in your hands first and then gently rub it on a child’s face, avoiding the eyes and mouth.
  • DON’T buy combination sunscreen and DEET products, as sunscreen should be reapplied and DEET shouldn’t.
  • DO wash repellent off skin and change clothes once you get back indoors.
  • DO use repellants with higher concentrations of DEET if you’re going for long periods of time between applications or if you’re going to be in environments where mosquito populations are high.  In general, products that contain around 10 percent DEET keep away insects for about 2 hours, while products with around 24 percent DEET will last for around 5 hours.

Deer ticks have also been in the news lately, because cases of tick-borne diseases, particularly Lyme disease and babesiosis, have been on the rise in Massachusetts this summer. According to one expert, a low acorn crop has led to a drop in the mouse population. Mice are a favorite food for ticks, but with fewer mice to feed on the insects—including those infected with Lyme disease—are looking for new food sources: including people.

Lyme disease is an infection that can affect a person’s skin, joints, nervous system and possibly organs. It is the leading tick-borne illness in the United States, and occurs mostly in the Northeast, upper Midwest and Pacific coast areas. Deer ticks do exist in southern states, but Lyme disease is much less prevalent there.

“Since deer ticks need 36 hours to transmit the Lyme germ, parents should check their children for ticks every day, especially in the warm months,” says Catherine Lachenauer, MD, director of Infectious Diseases Outpatient Practice at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Pay particular attention to parts of the body with skin folds, like armpits and necks.” Adult deer ticks that are not filled with human blood are usually the size of a sesame seed – engorged deer ticks will be larger, and easier to spot. Females are usually reddish orange with a brown spot, and males are brown all over.

If you find a tick on your child Lachenauer suggests the following steps:

  • Use tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  • Pull upward steadily, but don’t twist or jerk the tick because it may break apart, leaving its mouth inside the child’s skin.
  • Once the tick is removed, clean the bite area and your hands with soap and water.
  • For at least 30 days afterward, check the bite area for a rash, and inform your child’s doctor if one appears.

For more information on different kinds of insect repellents and how long they give protection, check out the tool on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Check out the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Arbovirus Daily Update for the latest information on EEE and West Nile Virus, including mosquitoes, animals and people that tested positive.

Also check out the Boston Children’s HealthMap website, which tracks disease outbreaks—including EEE and West Nile virus—all over the world in real time.

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