Bite by Bite

zika mosquito

// by Tracy Jones

Those who live outside of Florida may think the most dangerous predators in the state are alligators, snakes and panthers.

But in Florida, particularly in Jacksonville, one of the most potentially harmful creatures is also one of the smallest—mosquitos.

More than just a nuisance that can leave red marks on arms and legs, mosquitos cause the death of more than one million people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization. They are also the culprits behind the widely reported Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in Brazil and has already been detected in the U.S.

Jacksonville’s many bodies of standing water and warm weather make it a prime place for mosquitos to breed, says Joseph Conlon, a Fleming Island-based entomologist and spokesman for the American Mosquito Control Association.

Area mosquitos can travel up to 70 miles to search for their next meal, Conlon says, which makes them “an enormous nuisance.”

“Mosquitos are the most dangerous creatures on the planet,” he adds.

Mosquito safeguards

Each time a mosquito feeds on a person, it can spread serious diseases and viruses. It takes a mosquito between 15 to 20 attempts at feeding to get a full meal, Conlon says. Hoping not to get bit is not enough of a safeguard, he says. “There are no absolutes with this game of mosquitos and nature.”

Mobeen Rathore is the chief physician at Wolfson Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology department, as well as an infectious disease specialist for Baptist Health and co-chair of the Baptist Health Infection Prevention and Control Committee.

“If you live in Florida, bug bites are par for the course,” says Rathore. “Most bug bites, like fire ants, bees and wasps usually cause local reaction requiring no more than symptomatic treatment.”

To prevent mosquito exposure, as well as other bug bites, Rathore suggests all screens in a home should be free of breaks and tears, and long-sleeve shirts and pants should be worn to prevent bites. These measures also protect against ticks.

Rathore also recommends using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved insect repellent. The Florida Department of Health says that insect repellents should contain at least one of these as an active ingredient: DEET; Picaridin, Bayrepel and icaridin; oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthanediol; or IR3535. The higher the concentration of active ingredients in the formula, the longer it will last. Water typically washes off most repellents.

For children, repellent shouldn’t be applied on cut or irritated skin, mouth or hands, and the health department encourages cribs, strollers and baby carriers to have mosquito netting.

Mosquitos are most common at dawn and dusk, but repellent should be worn whenever you are outdoors and not just during prime mosquito times, according to the Florida Department of Health. Repellents should be applied after sunscreen.

It is also essential for residents to help government agencies control the population by taking some simple measures like removing open containers of water in yards, Conlon says.

“In controlling these mosquitos, we must rely on the local population to remove these containers,” he says. “It’s critical to get public cooperation. People need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Zika virus

A recent outbreak in Brazil of the Zika virus has resulted in pregnant women giving birth to children with defects. Americans diagnosed with the virus so far have been travelers to South America, and the risk of infection in the U.S. is currently very low.

“There is a good chance that we will have limited outbreaks in the U.S. and in Florida,” Rathore says. “It is unlikely these will be as explosive and widespread as in South America.”

The mosquito species that carry the virus, aedes aegypti, lay eggs near standing water in items such as buckets, bowls and flower pots and can live indoors and outdoors.

Removing cups of water left outside or rainwater collectors can help lessen the likelihood of mosquitos choosing a particular house to find its next meal.

As of mid-February, there have been a handful of cases in Florida of the Zika virus, including one case in St. Johns County, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The same mosquito that spreads the Zika virus also is the source of the Dengue and Chikungunya virus infections, Rathore says.

For travelers, Rathore cautions against visiting areas where there is an “ongoing transmission of the Zika virus.” Like those staying in town, travelers also are recommended to wear protective clothing, use appropriate insect repellent and spray permethrin on clothes or use permethrin pre-treated clothes.