Mosquito Madness

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent
A female Aedes aegypti mosquito

The Zika virus has disrupted travelers' plans to visit Central and South America and caused high-profile athletes to forgo participation in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The scare leaves many families who are staying close to home, enjoying the usual summer fun, to wonder if the mosquito-borne virus is a threat here. For the most part, medical professionals say, it isn't.

"My advice for parents who live in central Ohio and who won't be traveling is to not worry about catching the Zika virus from mosquitoes here," Dr. Miller Sullivan, the medical director for Franklin County Public Health, said in an email.

"Central Ohio is not the proper habitat for the mosquito that typically carries Zika, and the virus has never been isolated this far north in the hemisphere," said Sullivan, who also is a local pediatrician.

Nationwide Children's Hospital physician Dr. Dennis Cunningham agrees. "I think the fear is overblown," he said.

Two "imported" Zika cases had been verified locally as of press time, one each in June and July, said Jose Rodriguez, spokesman for Columbus Public Health. One woman had traveled to the Dominican Republic, and the other woman went to St. Lucia.

As of early July, "There have been no cases of local transmission," Rodriguez said.

The virus has been transmitted by two daytime-biting mosquitoes. Aedes aegypti, the yellow fever mosquito, is the primary culprit of the Zika virus outbreak but doesn't like Ohio's cold weather. Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, is found in Ohio but hasn't transmitted Zika to humans in the United States yet. Experts say it's just as content to bite animals as it is humans.

If Zika-carrying mosquitoes make their way into the continental U.S., it most likely would be in southern states such as Texas and Florida, said Cunningham, who works in Nationwide Children's infectious diseases section.

Both Miller and Cunningham said central Ohio parents should be more concerned about protecting their children from other mosquito-borne illnesses.

"There are other mosquito-borne diseases that are sometimes found in this area which also have the potential to cause serious disease, such as West Nile virus and the germs that cause La Crosse and St. Louis encephalitis," Miller said. "So taking steps to avoid mosquito bites should routinely be done."

As of the first week of July, Franklin County Public Health had tested nearly 50 locations for mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus; all were negative.

It doesn't take much to create a mosquito habitat. "Any standing water can breed mosquitos, even with as little as a teaspoon of water," Cunningham said.

He advised parents to drain any standing water outdoors, whether it's from a wading pool, toys in the yard or even flowerpot saucers.

"We always recommend removing sources of standing water and limiting outside exposure in the early morning and evening hours as mosquitoes more commonly bite during these times. Use insect repellant and wear light-colored clothing, long sleeves and pants to help limit skin exposure," Sullivan said.

Cunningham said insect repellant with DEET is effective and safe for children and adults if applied as labeled. Repellant should be applied after sunscreen.

Families who plan to travel to locations where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued Zika travel notices (such as Mexico, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands and Central and South America) should be cautious.

Pregnant women are advised not to travel to these areas because of the risk of infection, which can be passed to the baby and potentially cause microcephaly. This serious birth defect can result in infants born with small brains and heads, Cunningham said.

For those who do travel to Zika-identified areas, "You do need to take appropriate actions to avoid bites," Sullivan said.

Cunningham said most people who get Zika from an infected mosquito won't even realize they have the virus. "The majority of people infected typically don't have any symptoms," he said. Those symptoms may include a fever, rash, joint aches and conjunctivitis (think pink eye).

"The vast majority of people are going to be fine if they get infected," Cunningham said.

For more information about Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, and advice on how to prevent bites, go to the websites of Franklin County Public Health and Columbus Public Health.