Itchy yet? It’s merely a matter of time: Experts are predicting a major, prolonged onslaught of mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects in the Washington region this spring and summer. Of course, these reports immediately caused me to start scratching — and worrying about the health risks associated with bug bites.
The good news first: “For the most part, mosquitoes in this area are more of an annoyance than a serious problem,” says Gary Simon, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the George Washington University School of Medicine. “Most of the infections they transmit here are serious but fortunately quite rare, like encephalitis and West Nile virus,” he adds, pointing out that dengue fever, malaria and several other mosquito-borne ailments are an issue only in far-flung tropics. Nonetheless, to counter this year’s expected oversupply of blood-sucking bugs, he recommends such standard precautions as eliminating standing water around your yard that can serve as a breeding ground and regularly using DEET or proven natural repellents such as the oil of lemon eucalyptus.
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The bigger concern is ticks, which pose considerable health risks, says Thomas Mather, a professor of public health entomology and director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease.
“Generally speaking, there are now more ticks in more places than ever before, and D.C. is right at the nexus,” he explains. “You’ve got lone star ticks coming in from the south, deer ticks coming in from the north, and many suburban areas, like Loudon County, Virginia, have a huge problem with both.”
Feeding the problem is that more of these ticks appear to carry more disease-causing agents than in the past. That includes those that lead to Lyme disease but also lesser-known, equally serious conditions such as the malaria-like babesiosis, and ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis, both acute infections that are generally mild but can be fatal if left untreated. Human cases of Lyme and these less common diseases have risen sharply in the last decade, as they have spread across the country, according to CDC statistics.
“Today’s nymphal-stage ticks carry a range of pathogens, and they are like little stealth bombers ready to deliver their payloads of disease,” says Mather. “With deer ticks, for example, current research shows that one in four or five are infected with Lyme, and most are also contaminated with more than one [disease].” He and other experts stress that if you see deer in or around your neighborhood, you probably have reason to be concerned.
Get smart about ticks
Paul Beals, a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating Lyme disease at National Integrated Health Associates in the District, says, “We’re finding that the vast majority of our patients who are getting tick bites causing Lyme are also getting other co-infections at the same time,” including such febrile illnesses as bartonella, which can be transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes, as well as babesiosis and ehrlichiosis.