Six Insect-Borne Diseases Women Need to Beware of This Summer
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that as of April 25, 2017, a total of 1,793 pregnant women had evidence of the Zika virus infection in the U.S. So far this year alone, there have been 110 actual cases.
Climate Central says we need to brace for more, as hot and humid weather gathers steam around the country. Since the 1980s, most areas have seen an increase in the number of days each year that have ideal conditions for mosquitoes, which means the season is lengthening and the threat growing.
Nationwide, 76 percent of major cities have experienced increases in the length of their average mosquito season, with cities like Baltimore, Maryland and Durham, North Carolina seeing an increase of nearly 40 days. Other estimates so far are that the wet winter that hit many areas of the U.S. will bring on the insects early and in large numbers, while recent record-setting rainfall in California is likely to result in a record number of mosquitoes and other insects.
It’s not only mosquitoes we need to beware of, however, though they are often thought to present the most serious risks. Warmer weather brings out the ticks and kissing bugs, too. Here are the top six insect-borne diseases you need to watch out for this season.
1. Zika Virus
The Zika virus is spread by infected Aedes mosquitoes. Currently, there is no vaccine or medication to cure it. The most common symptoms of a Zika infection are fever, rash, headache, red eyes, and muscle pain, and these can last for several days, but people usually don’t get sick enough to have to go to the hospital. It’s like a mild form of the flu that typically goes away on its own, though vulnerable populations like the elderly or immune-compromised may be more at risk.
The most dangerous thing about Zika is that it can be transmitted from a mom to her unborn baby. A Zika infection during pregnancy can cause a rare birth defect known as “microcephaly,” in which the head and brain don’t develop as they should. It can also increase risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and other birth defects. Research has linked the virus to Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) as well, which is a rare disorder that can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis.
The CDC says that South Florida and Southern Texas are particularly at risk. Just a few months ago, the Texas Department of State Health Services recommended testing of all pregnant residents of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Willacy, and Zapata counties. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Health stated in March 2017 that a total of 18 cases of Zika had been reported so far for 2017. The CDC advises against pregnant women traveling to Miami-Dade County.
2. West Nile Virus
West Nile is another virus transmitted by mosquitoes, and so far, we have no vaccine or cure for it. Like Zika, the West Nile infection causes either no symptoms or only mild symptoms in healthy adults, and will usually go away on its own after a few days. In about one out of five people, it will cause West Nile fever, which ray result in a fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and skin rash. Most people will recover, but the fatigue and weakness may last for weeks or even months.
In rare cases—less than one percent of infected individuals—West Nile may cause a serious brain condition called “encephalitis” (inflammation of the brain), or “meningitis” (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord). These are both neurological diseases that are life-threatening in about 10 percent of those who develop them.
People over the age of 60 are believed to be most at risk for serious West Nile disease, as are those who are made vulnerable by other diseases like cancer, kidney disease, and organ transplants.
As of January 17, 2017, a total of 47 states and the District of Columbia reported West Nile infections in people, birds, or mosquitoes.
This disease is also transmitted by mosquitoes, but is less prevalent in the United States than Zika and West Nile. Chikungunya is another flu-like illness with symptoms including joint pain fever, muscle pain, headaches, and rash. Most people who develop the infection feel better within about a week, but in some, the joint pain can last for months or years.
Travelers to the Caribbean are at risk for the disease, but this virus is also showing up in the U.S. The CDC states that as of January 17, 2017, a total of 175 cases have been reported from 37 U.S. states. All cases were in travelers returning from affected areas—so far, there have been no locally transmitted cases.
As with the other diseases listed, there is no vaccine or medication for chikungunya, but scientists did report last year that they developed a successful one with potential for the future.
4. Lyme Disease
In a USA Today report, scientists predicted a surge in the number of Lyme-carrying ticks in the Northeast this year, mainly because of a boom in the white-footed mice population (on which ticks love to feed). The Bug-Barometer, a bi-annual report produced by the National Pest Management Association, also forecast an abundant tick season, with higher tick populations present because of the unseasonably warm winter.
Lyme disease is on the rise regardless, with cases tripling in number since the 1990s to at least 30,000 a year. The disease is caused by bacteria that ticks carry, and creates symptoms like headache, fever, fatigue, and skin rash. If left untreated, it can cause more serious problems in the joints, heart, and nervous system. If diagnosed correctly, however, it can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
After visiting areas where ticks may be present (after nature walks, hikes, camping, etc.), always scan your body and equipment for ticks. If you find one, follow the CDC’s directions for removal, and watch for symptoms like a red, expanding skin rash, headaches, joint pain and swelling, shortness of breath, and facial muscle weakness. Areas known for ticks include the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast.
Experts have recently warned that a virus “worse than Lyme disease” is on the rise. Called the “Powassan” virus (POW), it’s a rare disease spread by infected ticks that can cause severe brain and spinal cord inflammation. About 10 percent of cases are fatal, and about half can cause permanent brain damage.
The CDC says that only 75 cases have been reported in the U.S. over the past 10 years, with most occurring in the northeastern and Great Lake regions, but because the tick population is expected to be high this summer, experts are warning people to be especially careful. Symptoms of the early disease include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, and confusion, with later more serious symptoms including seizures, speech troubles, and loss of coordination.
There is currently no cure for POW, so protection from ticks remains key. In addition, ticks can also cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other infections.
6. Chagas Disease
In a late 2016 study, scientists reported transmission of Chagas disease as “underway in Texas.” This disease is transmitted by the Triatomine bug, also known as the “kissing bug,” a blood-sucking insect that feeds on people and animals. Also called “American trypanosomiasis,” the disease is called a “silent killer” because it rarely causes symptoms, but over time, creates life-threatening heart damage.
According to a recent study of Latin American-born residents of Los Angeles County, at least 1.24 percent tested positive for this disease, which is one of the leading causes of heart failure in Latin America. The CDC has estimated that about 300,000 people are living with this disease in our country, and that roughly 30 percent of infected individuals will develop serious health issues, including heart, digestive, and neurological disorders.
These kissing bugs that transmit the disease live in 27 states in the southern half of the U.S. They like to stay underneath porches and in other covered areas like woodpiles, brush piles, dog houses, chicken coops, and rodent nests and animal burrows. They rarely get inside the house unless there are cracks and holes.
The CDC notes that most people with Chagas disease in the U.S. acquired their infections in other countries. The good news is that transmission is not easy. The virus actually lives in the bugs’ feces. Transmission occurs when this material is rubbed into the bite wound, so always wash any bug bites before scratching.
How to Protect Yourself from Insect Bites
You may not be able to keep track of all insect-borne diseases and how they may affect you. We’ve covered only a few of them here. You can, however, take steps to protect yourself and your family from insects this summer, which will increase your odds of avoiding all of these diseases and any others that insects carry.
Below are the best tips for repelling these pests before they bite:
- Clothing: Use clothing to create a barrier between you and biting insects. Use long-sleeved shirts and pants when you go out walking, biking, or hiking.
- Insect Repellant: Treat your clothing and gear as well as any exposed skin with insect repellant. Use effective, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved repellants that include either DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (also called para-menthane-diol), or 2-undecanone.
- Screens: Use screens to keep mosquitoes outside and netting over baby carriers, strollers, and cribs.
- Sex: The Zika virus can be transmitted sexually. If you or your partner may have been exposed, be sure to use protection.
- Standing water: Regularly empty any water containers in your yard and around your home (at least once a week). Anything that holds standing water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Watch out for birdbaths, flowerpots, trash containers, old tires, buckets, and other similar items.
- Travel: Always check the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/zika) for updates on Zika and other insect-transmitted diseases before traveling to affected areas. If you are trying to get pregnant, consider avoiding nonessential travel to areas with a CDC Zika travel notice.
- Mow: To keep reduce ticks on your property, keep your lawn mowed and dispose of any leaf piles. (Ticks like tall grass, leaf litter and underbrush.) Remove wood, brush, and rock piles near the house.
- Walk: Always stay in the center of trails when hiking, and avoid brushy areas with high grass and fallen leaves to avoid ticks.
- Search: After any hike outdoors, bathe or shower as soon as possible, and conduct a full-body tick check. Be particularly careful of hidden areas such as behind the ears, under the arms, inside the belly button, behind the knees, in the hair, between the legs, and around the waist. Examine any hiking and camping gear, as well, and tumble clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and the like in the dryer on high for 10 minutes to kill any ticks.
- Seal: To keep dangerous insects out of your home, be sure to seal up cracks and gaps around windows, walls, roofs, doors, and near the attic and crawl spaces.
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