Mosquito and tick illness prevention in the Covid era: An interview with the Tick and Mosquito Project

Photo by majasimenc from FreeImages

How did you and your organization decide to get into the field of mosquito/tick disease prevention?

We saw the numbers of people afflicted by vector-borne diseases — those carried by creatures such as mosquitoes and ticks — climbing, without a proportionate awareness message on how to prevent or reduce the likelihood of being affected. We wanted to help get the messages out in a way that stayed current on the latest research, but was also presented in a non-academic tone.

With Coronavirus dominating the news for the last year, have people forgotten that mosquito and tick-borne diseases are still a problem as well?

COVID-19 has certainly taken center-stage, and public health resources have been devoted to it. That translates to the majority of awareness efforts being about COVID instead of other diseases like West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, and other vector-borne illnesses. Many people took to the outdoors for the first time during 2020. While this has many positive aspects, it is likely that many of those people aren’t versed in how to reduce risks from mosquitoes and ticks (or snakes and plants, for that matter).

What are the disease numbers like in the L.A. area and how do they compare to the rest of the country?

The Los Angeles area is deceiving when it comes to mosquito-borne illnesses.  L.A. County actually had the highest preliminary count of West Nile Virus of any county in the nation for 2020.  People ask “how can this be?” since the area doesn’t have as many mosquitos Southeast, New England, or the Great Lakes.  One reason is that in drier climates like California, birds and mosquitoes have to share limited water sources. Mosquitoes often get West Nile from birds, so the close quarters create an ideal scenario for transmission.

Tick-borne illnesses are not as prevalent in Southern California, but their range has been expanding in recent years. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is found throughout the West. You see some cases of Lyme disease in California each year, but those may be caused by people being bitten elsewhere before traveling home; it is hard to tell. Many people who end up with a big, red bite don’t even remember being bitten.

What is the best way to repel mosquitoes and ticks?

Prevention is the best medicine. Even when you are in their natural habitat, you can still take steps to avoid or decrease contact and exposure. Sometimes the same action can help with both mosquitoes and ticks for different reasons: wearing lightly colored clothing makes it easier to spot ticks and also reflects heat, and mosquitoes are more likely to be attracted to someone with a higher body temperature (another reason to make sure you plan appropriately for warm-weather hikes.)

Speaking of getting two for one, there are some effective tick repellents that also do a great job against mosquitoes, namely repellents that are permethrin-based, so when in doubt it can be a good way to take steps against both vectors with a single repellent.  

What should people know about using repellent that they might not know? 

I won’t rehash all of the directions on the label of a mosquito repellent, but there are a couple interesting facts when using products containing DEET — the most common type of mosquito repellent out there. First, the “% DEET” number that you see on a bottle of repellent is useful, but not in the way you might think. A higher % of DEET doesn’t mean it will repel more mosquitoes or provide stronger immediate defense. It means that the application will work for a longer time, and you will not need to reapply as often.

Second, sunscreen and DEET have a weird interaction, and you don’t want to apply both at the same time. DEET reduces sunscreen’s SPF effectiveness, and there is some evidence that sunscreen applied at the same time as DEET may increase DEET’s toxicity. The U.S. Library of Medicine recommends applying sunscreen first, letting it completely dry, and then applying your mosquito repellent 30 minutes later.

Are there any good alternatives to repellent? 

Many people experiment with essential oils, and there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that essential oils could work on mosquitoes.  However, the EPA-backed science is not nearly as proven for essential oils as it is for products like DEET, picaridin, and permethrin, so it is important to disclose that.  

The essential oils that get the best press when it comes to repelling mosquitoes are Oil of Lemon and Eucalyptus (OLE), Lavender, and Soybean Oil. Many swear by them, and Soybean Oil has shown to repel mosquitoes for a short duration in some controlled experiments by the NEJM. Still, if I was going to an area of the world where malaria was a real risk, I would be using DEET the whole time.

My favorite “natural” way of repelling mosquitoes is to simply wear bug-repelling clothing.  Specially-designed shirts and pants (like these) are a great way to keep mosquitoes at bay. You almost forget you are wearing them. They provide great sun protection as well. Anytime I go for a hike, they are a staple of my wardrobe.

Some of these garments are treated with permethrin during the manufacturing process. Permethrin is odorless and you won’t even know it is on the garment, but if that is a concern for you, you should look for products made without it.

What advice would you give hikers who are worried about mosquitoes and ticks?

Don’t let mosquitoes or ticks prevent you from enjoying the great outdoors! By taking just a few precautions you can reduce the vast majority of your risk. Just like avoiding rattlesnakes on the trail or bears around your campsite, be prepared and stay alert.

Follow The Tick and Mosquito Project on Twitter.

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