It’s that time of year again. As the warm weather returns, so do the dreaded mosquitos.
While entomologists don’t think the state will see a surge in West Nile virus cases early this summer, they are worried about a potential rise in chikungunya virus cases and expect healthy populations of nuisance mosquitos.
Georgia is home to 63 mosquito species, most of which fall into the “nuisance” category, meaning they are more disruptive than dangerous. Eliminating standing water, where mosquitos lay their eggs, is the key to reducing populations and defending your summer afternoons.
While the recent rain has led to many water-filled containers that need to be emptied, the rain has also decimated the habitat for mosquitos that spread West Nile.
“The heavy rains of the past few weeks will serve to flush the storm drain systems across the state,” said Elmer Gray, an Athens-based University of Georgia Extension mosquito specialist. “This reduces and slows the development of southern house mosquito populations (the species that transmits West Nile).”
Consequently, entomologists aren’t expecting an outbreak of West Nile cases this spring, but they’re still being vigilant against other mosquito-borne illnesses.
Chikungunya is a virus transmitted to people by mosquitos. While not deadly, the disease is still serious, causing fever and incapacitating joint pain. Outbreaks have occurred in countries in Africa, Europe and Asia, and spread to the Caribbean in late 2013.
So far, state health officials have documented 34 cases of international travelers returning home and becoming sick after visiting areas where the disease is active. While local transmission is possible, there have been no such cases to this date. There is no vaccine or treatment available, so it is important to take preventative measures.
“Chickungunya is transmitted by mosquitos that develop in containers around our homes and communities,” Gray said. “People need to eliminate all standing water around their homes and talk with their neighbors to see that they do the same. If the water can't be eliminated, it should be brought to the attention of the county health department, public works or the county Extension office, so it can be evaluated for mosquito production.”
Be on the lookout for abandoned planters and flowerpot saucers, mop buckets, toys, overturned Frisbees and anything else that can hold water. Larvicidal briquettes are available to treat water gardens, rain gardens, clogged drainage ditches or any other permanent landscape feature that holds water for more than a week.
Mosquitos are most active at dawn and dusk, so people may want to stay inside during those times to avoid bites. Make sure door and window screens are intact, as they are the home’s first line of defense, Gray said. If you do go outside, especially in grassy or wooded areas, be sure to apply insect repellent that is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
There are several commercially available EPA-approved repellents, like picaridin, lemon eucalyptus oil and IR3535. Gray recommends using repellents containing DEET at a 30 percent or lower concentration and reapplying every few hours. Children as young as 2 months old can be safely treated with DEET-containing insect repellents, Gray said.
“Products containing DEET are still the best choice for young children,” Gray said.
“Parents should put the repellents on their hands, rub the child's exposed skin – full coverage is important. Upon returning indoors, repellents should be washed off with warm water and soap.”
Pet owners should also take time this spring to make sure their pets are up to date on heartworm preventative treatments.
In addition to spreading West Nile and chikungunya, mosquitos transmit heartworms to dogs and cats. Veterinarians recommend keeping pets on heartworm preventative medication all year, but if pet owners have let this slip, now is the time to treat.