THIS MEANS WAR

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This story comes from Texas but it’s relevant everywhere there are mosquitos. Read down for the red-highlighted sections that apply to all Americans trying to thwart these dangerous pests. 

mosquito-542156_640After May’s rain came and went, East Texas was left a breeding ground for the deadliest animal in the world — the mosquito.

While mosquitoes might seem simply another pest to avoid during the summer months, University of Texas at Tyler professor and entomologist Blake Bextine called the insects “silent killers.”

The six-legged animal earns its number-one spot on the deadliest animals list because of the pathogens the many species of mosquitoes carry and can transmit to humans and other mammals.

Some might carry yellow fever and malaria, but others bring with them West Nile virus and chikungunya.

Occurrences of the West Nile virus has increased in East Texas, and chikungunya has started making its presence known over the past couple years as well, Bextine said.

Few cases of malaria and yellow fever appear in North America, and those cases are generally from people who have traveled outside the country to areas where malaria is more common.

“Because we’re in a developed nation in North America, we don’t have that issue,” he said. “We don’t have malaria in North America, so that’s not a huge part of the problem.”

The United States’ biggest concern with diseases transmitted by mosquitoes are West Nile and, more recently, chikungunya.

Each year is difficult to predict as far as the number of West Nile virus cases, Texas Department of State Health Services press officer Christine Mann said. “We’ve had pesky nuisance mosquitoes right now, but we haven’t had any of the West Nile load carrying mosquitoes show up that I’ve heard of,” Fred Killingsworth, administrative assistant for the Gregg County Health Department, said.

Right now, Killingsworth said, the health department is “watching, waiting and seeing” what kind of West Nile season the East Texas region will have. If the virus begins to pose a threat to the county and surrounding areas, the department will start establishing a response.

“If the state starts seeing them migrating up in this area, then we’ll start having discussions,” he said. “We might just be lucky and miss it the whole year this year.”

For BJ Owen, director of special services for the City of Kilgore, the fight against mosquitoes is personal. At the age of 12 or 13, Owen contracted Eastern Equine Encephalitis, which is a horse disease usually seen in the eastern United States, after being bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease. The disease caused Owen’s brain to swell — he was in a coma for some time and was in the hospital for a week or two.

“I just remember many, many spinal taps and a headache that was unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t like mosquitoes, but I don’t know how we’re going to beat them other than we can do our best to reduce the population.”

Mosquito-borne diseases are spread farther than mosquitoes actually fly because humans become carriers — vectors — without realizing it.

“Up to 80 percent that are actually infected by West Nile actually don’t know they have it,” Mann said.

Those who become infected and do not show symptoms can travel to other parts of the country without knowing they are a danger to anyone. When a mosquito in the location they’re visiting bites them, if the disease is still in their blood stream, that particular illness gets into a mosquito’s salivary glands and can be injected into the next person they bite.

While mosquito-spread diseases do happen in Texas, Bextine said, they pose an added threat to people with lower immune systems, such as infants and the elderly.

When healthy people become infected and do not realize it, Bextine added, some cases of West Nile and other mosquito-spread diseases in America go undocumented.

For those that experience the symptoms, Mann said, they can include a West Nile fever, body aches and flu-like symptoms. In extreme cases, the virus can take on a more severe form. The best way to protect against the disease is to protect against the insects.

The red bumps many people see after getting bitten by mosquitoes are the result of the human body’s reaction to the mosquitoes’ saliva — not venom — Texas AgriLife Extension Program Specialist Erfan Vafaie said.

While some people might react more or less than others, he added, the area is less likely to become inflamed if the person avoids scratching.

Mosquitoes are most active at dawn, dusk and in shady areas. Generally, the insects stay out of the sun, Bextine said. People who are out at those hours or work in shady environments are more susceptible to mosquito bites.

The City of Kilgore finished its first “pass” of mosquito spraying Friday night to help cut down on this year’s population.

With so much rain in May, the city was not able to spray for mosquitoes because it does not work in high wind or rain. In general, though, spraying is one of the most ineffective ways to kill mosquitoes, Owen said.

Of the billions of droplets of fog in the spray, he said, “One of those drops has to hit a mosquito to be effective.”

He compared the spray to throwing a bunch of BBs at the mosquitoes.

“If you’re killing a lot of the adult population, you’ve already kind of lost the war,” Bextine said. “The time you want to affect mosquito populations is when eggs are being laid and larvae are developing.”

“It’s so much more effective to kill mosquitoes by taking away their habitat,” Owen said.

Bextine explained even a space as small as a water bottle cap can be enough water for a mosquito to grow into an adult.

“People can do the most good to make sure there’s no standing water,” Killingsworth said.

With a small body of water that does not flow but cannot be dumped out or drained, officials suggest larvicide that kills larva in the water before they can develop.

By targeting mosquitoes as larvae, Bextine said, “You have a much better chance of affecting those populations as far as like a percentage of the population that you’re going to eliminate.”

With three-quarters of a mosquito’s life spent in water, eliminating the standing water takes away any breeding ground and does not allow any larvae to develop into an adult mosquito. Some of the places where Owen said people do not think about as mosquito habitats are emptied soda and beer cans with the slightest bit of liquid in it and gutters.

Currently, the mosquito’s growth from larva to adult mosquito spans about a week to 10 days. As it warms up, though, Owen said, the time required for metamorphosis will shorten. As the time needed to mature decreases, people should dump water bowls and bird baths more frequently to disrupt the larvae development.

Even with spraying taking place, Owen said, he still advises people to take protective measures against mosquitoes.

Killingsworth encouraged people to wear long-sleeves and pants to cover their skin when in mosquito-prone areas or “coat” themselves in repellant instead of just a “dusting” of it.

People who opt to cover their bodies with protective clothing should not wear anything too tight, Vafaie said. If clothing is tight to a person’s skin, he said, “Sometimes mosquitoes can bite through your clothes.”

With the popularity of at-home remedies shared through social media and the Internet, Bextine said, there are many myths about mosquitoes.

Two of the myths Bextine highlighted to repel mosquitoes were putting dryer sheets in pants and putting a drop of Dawn-brand dish soap in a cup of water.

“Those are myths,” he said. “The only thing that we know works really well as a repellant is citronella and then also using DEET-containing insecticidal sprays.”

The bug sprays, including the brands OFF and Skintastic, include natural products from trees that help repel mosquitoes and other insects.

Another bug-defense rumor Bextine has heard involves sound-producing products.

“Those have never been shown to work effectively,” he said.

In studies with cockroaches, some results show the device repels, while others show it actually attracts the nuisances, he said.

“If there was a big secret that industry was hiding from us and Saran Wrap and apples solved the problems, then everyone would be doing that,” Bextine said. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

For people who think their blood type must be to blame for their attractiveness to mosquitoes, Bextine said, that is not the case either. And although it can be nice to tell children, there is not a correlation to a person’s sugar intake or sweetness level either.

“Mosquitoes are actually attracted to carbon dioxide,” he said, which the body constantly emits.

Their ability to sense carbon dioxide can help the insects find their next target, Vafaie said.

“People that don’t seem to be attractive to mosquitoes are usually putting out — for whatever reason — putting out less carbon dioxide,” Bextine said.

Female mosquitoes are usually the ones that bite people and other mammals. In general, Bextine said, the male mosquito population is smaller than that of the females.

“The females need to take in a blood meal so the eggs that they’re producing can develop to maturity,” he explained.

While females need the protein in blood for her fertilized eggs, Owen said, the males and females without eggs will feed on plant nectar.

With dozens of types of mosquitoes, Bextine said, there are three main genuses of mosquito in the East Texas area — the Culex, the Aedes and the Anopheles.

West Nile, which Bextine explained as being a bit of a “pandemic” in the area, is transmitted by the Culex mosquito. Chikungunya can be spread by the Aedes mosquito. The Anopheles mosquito spreads malaria, which does not pose a concern in developed countries, he said.

The Culex mosquito is one of the most recognizable, he added, because of its tiger stripes. “If you see those stripes, there’s a good chance you’ve identified it correctly.”

While people can protect themselves with bug spray, long-sleeves and pants, Bextine said, pet owners should protect their furry friends as well.

“Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitoes, and they’re transmitted by several different genus of mosquitoes,” he said.

Unlike “kennel cough,” mosquitoes present a way dogs and cats can contract heartworms without ever coming into contact with another member of their own species, Bextine said.

“They’re dangerous to us and pets and everything,” he said. Some mosquitoes, though, do not rely on humans for their meals. Instead, some converge on plants and grass.

“They all prefer different habitats,” Vafaie said.

Mosquito species that feed on plants can serve as pollinators and benefit the environment. Though, Bextine added, “It doesn’t make you feel any better when they’re attacking you.”

Even species that feed on blood from mammals serve a purpose, Vafaie said, by being food for other animals in the food chain, such as frogs and spiders.

“Even though they’re a nuisance, we have to remember, they’re a living organism that’s part of this larger ecosystem that we inhabit,” Bextine said.

News Edge Acquire Media

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By Chelsea Katz, Kilgore News Herald, Texas__

(c)2015 the Kilgore News Herald (Kilgore, Texas)

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