A 60-year-old man in Massachusetts made headlines last week… for all the worst reasons.
That’s because he became the first recorded case of a certain mosquito-borne virus infecting a human in Massachusetts since 2003.
The media latched onto the story and spread a lot of fear without giving much background. But whenever you see stories like this, it’s important to understand your real risk.
Because the reality is that this particular virus is rare. That’s little comfort for anyone who gets it, but it should bring some perspective. It’s certainly no reason to lock yourself inside.
Let’s take a look at what this disease is, what your risk is, and what you can do to protect yourself…
The virus getting all the media attention is called the Eastern equine encephalitis virus, or EEEV. Roughly 4% to 5% of EEEV-infected people develop a disease with a similar name – Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). It can cause headaches, stiff necks, and brain swelling.Brain swelling is the real concern here, as it can lead to problems like memory loss, seizures, coma, and death.
That sounds scary, but EEE only affects about seven Americans every year and rarely results in death (in 2018, there was one death out of six cases).
The reality is that you have just as much chance of dying from EEE as you have of winning the lottery.
With that in mind, we need to caution that some areas are more prone to mosquitoes carrying the disease than others. For instance, Florida and Massachusetts are hot spots for EEEV-carrying mosquitoes.
What you should pay more attention to is other mosquito-borne diseases.
Here’s a list of mosquito-borne diseases and the number of folks affected in the U.S. in 2018…
- West Nile virus: 2,647 cases, 167 deaths.
- La Crosse virus: 83 cases, 0 deaths.
- Jamestown Canyon virus: 32 cases, 0 deaths.
- St. Louis encephalitis: 8 cases, 1 death.
- Dengue fever: 2 cases, 0 deaths.
- Zika virus: 0 cases, 0 deaths.
Remember, the Zika panic was overblown. Today, there are no locally acquired cases in the U.S.
So given these numbers, should you forgo all protection and let yourself be a buffet for these insects? Not at all. Mosquito bites are a nuisance, and some folks might even have an allergic reaction. And that slight chance of a dangerous disease is still a good reminder to use some common sense.
What’s more, according to Vector Disease Control International (VDCI), 2019 is a bad year for mosquitoes. Heat waves and flooding make for prime conditions for the bugs. Most of them won’t carry disease, but it’s a good reminder to follow my favorite tips to keep mosquitoes away…
Wear the right clothes. Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors, so stick to lighter-colored outfits that are also loose-fitting (which makes it harder for them to bite you through the fabric). And make sure to avoid strong perfumes, aftershaves, and other body care items, as these attract mosquitoes.
Pay attention to your yard. Check your birdbaths, gutters, and pool and furniture covers – mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water. Once these larvae grow into adult mosquitoes, the population can quickly boom, feeding into a vicious, bloodthirsty cycle. Make sure to check your yard after it rains and dump any puddles of standing water whenever possible.
The American Mosquito Control Association also recommends drilling holes in the bottom of recycling containers to prevent water from collecting when it rains and changing the water in birdbaths at least once a week. Make sure you switch out the water in outdoor pet dishes frequently as well.
And try planting some natural mosquito-repellent flowers and shrubs. Marigolds, citronella, and ageratum are all good choices.
Plan your time outside. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk… So plan your activities around those times to reduce the likelihood of being bitten. And if you’re outside during those times, try running a fan. Even a small battery powered one will create an air current that keeps mosquitoes from easily landing on your skin.
Ditch the DEET. Regular readers know I’ve written before about the dangers of using diethyltoluamide-based insect repellants. Commonly referred to as “DEET,” this chemical compound is associated with plenty of scary side effects like rashes, headaches, and even nerve damage.
I’ve previously recommended natural alternatives to DEET-based sprays, like planting geraniums, mint, and lavender in your backyard. When it comes to repellents, I like Repel’s lemon-eucalyptus spray. Oil of lemon eucalyptus has been listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a safe and effective alternative to DEET.
And if you plan on being outside at night, try replacing incandescent light bulbs with yellow “bug lights,” which attract fewer insects than traditional bulbs.
Remember, a little common sense goes a long way. Follow my tips to keep mosquitoes away, but don’t worry if you get bitten. Just keep an eye on any bites and seek medical attention if you get a headache, have neck pain or stiffness, or become feverish and achy.
What We’re Reading…
- More from the mosquito-borne disease report.
- Something different: Reminder to remove your dentures before surgery.
Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
August 20, 2019