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Question: I am starting to see mosquitos when I take my daughter out for our evening walks. I don’t want to use any chemical insect sprays on her, but I am afraid she might get West Nile Virus. What else can I do to keep her safe?

Christine Climer responds: As summertime heats up, we begin to hear stories about people being infected with this exotic-sounding disease. The name alone is scary enough to cause widespread panic, but the risks associated with West Nile Virus (WNV) are actually very miniscule, and there are easy things you can do to keep your family healthy this summer.

How is the virus spread?
Most of the time, people are infected by mosquito bites, although according to the CDC, “less than 1 percent of people who are bitten by mosquitoes develop any symptoms of the disease and relatively few mosquitoes actually carry WNV.”

Mosquitoes become carriers of the virus when they feed on an infected bird. They transfer the virus to humans and other animals when they bite.

While WNV itself is new to this part of the world, it is not new for mosquitoes to carry encephalitis-causing viruses. Other diseases such as St. Louis Encephalitis and Eastern Equine Encephalitis are also spread this way and have been in the United States for many, many years.

A small portion of West Nile cases occur through blood transfusions, organ transplants and from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding. However, it is recommended that breastfeeding mothers continue to breastfeed even if they do become infected with WNV.

Infection doesn’t usually make you sick
According to the CDC, most people who are infected with the virus have absolutely no symptoms at all. Those who do get sick generally experience mild symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, nausea and vomiting.

Less than 1 percent of people who become infected with WNV develop severe illness, which may include severe headache, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. Severe illness is most likely to occur in individuals older than 50 years of age. Mild illness resolves by itself without medical treatment. If you or your child develop any of the severe symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Controlling the mosquito population
Many communities have chosen to spray insecticides as a means of controlling mosquito growth. These commonly used pesticides are known to have toxic effects on humans and other wildlife. To minimize exposure to these chemicals, the EPA recommends paying close attention to your local news media for announcements regarding spraying activity. Close your windows and turn off window unit air conditioners when spraying is taking place.

The EPA also urges us each to do our part to control mosquitoes in our communities. The easiest way to prevent the growth of mosquito larvae is to empty all sources of standing water on your property such as bird baths, potted plant trays, wading pools, buckets and clogged rain gutters. Also repair any leaky outdoor faucets, which might cause puddles in your yard.

Avoiding the bites
Keep mosquitoes out of your home by repairing or installing well fitting window and door screens. Mosquitoes bite primarily between dusk and dawn, so you may plan to stay indoors during those hours. When you are outside, long sleeves, long pants and socks can offer some protection.

Most authorities agree that insect repellants containing the chemical DEET are the longest lasting products available. In a recent study, DEET products repelled mosquitoes for at least two hours, whereas common botanical products such as citronella kept the mosquitoes away for less than 20 minutes. Bite Blocker, a soybean oil-based product with other botanical ingredients, was found to offer a more similar duration of protection as DEET, lasting about 90 minutes. A eucalyptus oil product also showed promise but entered the study late, so more conclusive results could not be drawn.

Some people are concerned about the health effects of using DEET, particularly on infants and children. Toxic effects are known to occur with overexposure. If you choose to use a DEET product, it is safer to apply it to clothing rather than directly on the skin. Also, make sure you always follow the instructions on the label and choose a product that contains no more than 10% DEET for children. Some authorities suggest that DEET may be used on infants over 2 months of age, while others recommend not using it at all on children under 2 years of age. No definitive studies exist in the scientific literature about what concentration of DEET is safe for children.

Many people feel that taking B-complex or vitamin B-1 supplements alters their body odor, thereby repelling mosquitoes. This is an approach that has not yet been proven effective by clinical studies. A similar unproven approach involves the application of clear vanilla to the skin to alter body odor. Catnip oil has also shown promise recently, but no human trials have yet been performed.

These easy, common sense steps will help keep you and your daughter bite-free this summer. So get out and enjoy the great outdoors without the worry!

CDC, DVBID Factsheet “West Nile Virus: What You Need To Know”
CDC, DVBID, West Nile Virus Questions and Answers
EPA and Mosquito Control Fact Sheets
Fradin MS, Day JF. Comparative Efficacy of Insect Repellents Against Mosquito Bites. N Engl J Med. 2002;347(1):13-8.
Petersen LR and Marfin AA. West Nile Virus: A Primer for the Clinician. Ann Intern Med, August 6, 2002; 137(3): 173-179.

© Christine Climer.

Christine Climer is a registered nurse with experience in pulmonary disease, pediatrics, home health and hospice services. Also trained in early childhood education, she is currently executive director and child care nurse for an early childhood health promotion organization. She lives with her husband and three children (including a set of twins) in Texas and enjoys researching health issues and gardening.

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