COMMENTARY: Protect yourself from mosquito bites, diseases

As many Delawareans can attest, this mosquito season has been a particularly harsh one in the First State. Not only do mosquitoes create an annoyance for those who spend any time outside, they can also carry infectious diseases that cause serious illness.

The Division of Public Health (DPH) has just announced its fifth case of West Nile Virus confirmed in a human this year. This latest case involves a 57-year-old New Castle County man who is hospitalized. Of the remaining four cases, all are men, three are New Castle County residents and one is a Sussex County resident. Their ages range from 60 to 73 years old. The Delaware Department of Agriculture has also just announced a third case of WNV in horses.

The increasing number of cases of West Nile Virus in humans this year is incredibly concerning since the peak transmission period for this mosquito-borne illness is not expected to end for another six weeks. That is why we are urging Delawareans to use insect repellent whenever they go outside.

Dr. Karyl Rattay

As summer turns to fall, more people will be spending time outdoors and children will be participating in after-school sports. The cooling temperatures may lull people into a false sense of security that mosquito season is over, but that is not the case. Mosquitoes remain active until at least mid-October, so it is vitally important that everyone take the basic step of using insect repellent to protect themselves.

While the mosquitoes that cause WNV bite primarily from dusk to dawn, other mosquitoes that cause diseases such as chikungunya, dengue fever and Zika can bite during the day. For the best protection against these diseases, the CDC now recommends wearing insect repellent whenever you go outdoors.

Nearly 80 percent of those infected with WNV will not become ill, but a little less than 20 percent of those infected with the virus will develop West Nile fever with mild symptoms (fever, headache, body aches, skin rash on the chest or back and swollen lymph glands). One in 150 people infected will develop severe infection (West Nile encephalitis or meningitis).

Symptoms of severe WNV infection include headache, high fever, stiff neck, and/or tremors and muscle weakness. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk. Anyone who experiences any of these severe symptoms should seek medical help immediately. Symptoms may progress to stupor, disorientation, coma, convulsions, paralysis and possibly death.

Because there are no human vaccines to prevent West Nile Virus, proactive prevention is all the more important. To avoid mosquito bites and reduce the risk of infection, individuals should:

• Use Environmental Protection Agency -registered insect repellents. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for reapplication times.

• If using sunscreen, apply it first and insect repellent second.

• For applying onto children, spray insect repellent onto your hands and then apply to the child’s face. Do not apply insect repellent onto a child’s hands, eyes, mouth, or on cut or irritated skin.

• Do not use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months of age.

• When outside, wear shoes, light-colored long-sleeved shirts and pants. Dress your child in clothing that covers arms and legs. Mosquito netting can protect one’s face and neck, and infants in carriages, strollers and playpens.

• Use permethrin (an insecticide) to treat clothing and gear (such as boots, pants, socks, and tents), but do not apply to skin.

• Prevent mosquitoes from entering the house by using screens and keeping windows and doorways tightly sealed.

DPH collaborates closely with our sister agencies, the Delaware Department of National Recourses and the Department of Agriculture on mosquito prevention and control. The DNREC Mosquito Control Section has seen an increase of WNV found in wild birds and sentinel chickens this year throughout the state.

To assist the state’s mosquito control efforts, and to reduce mosquito-breeding habitat for mosquitoes that can transmit WNV, DNREC urges homeowners to practice good water sanitation on their property by eliminating standing water, particularly as might be collected in buckets, containers, uncovered trash cans, stagnant bird baths, old tires and unused swimming pools.

While there are no human vaccines against WNV, there are effective vaccines available for horses through licensed veterinarians, according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s State Veterinarian’s Office.

To report suspected cases of human WNV, call the DPH Office of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at 888-295-5156.

For more information about:

• Mosquito biology/ecology and control: Contact the Mosquito Control Section’s Dover office at 302-739-9917.

• Reporting WNV-suspect wild birds, or for requests for mosquito relief: For upstate areas from Dover north, contact Mosquito Control’s Glasgow field office at 302-836-2555; for downstate areas south of Dover, contact Mosquito Control’s Milford field office at 302-422-1512.

• Animal health questions related to WNV or EEE should be directed to the Department of Agriculture’s Poultry and Animal Health Section at 302-698-4500 or 800-282-8685 (Delaware only).

For more information on what you can do to prevent West Nile Virus, visit the CDC website, https://www.cdc.gov/westnile/prevention/index.html.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, M.D., M.S., is director of the Delaware Division of Public Health.

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