Summer vacation is upon us and mosquito season will last until November. That means the mosquito borne zika virus known to cause birth defects if a woman is infected during pregnancy will be in the news once again. Diana Ramos, M.D., director for reproductive health at the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, says we all need to protect our children’s health and our families by making smart travel decisions, but also taking measures at home to prevent mosquito-transmitted diseases.
How prevalent is the Zika virus in L.A. County and where are the mosquitoes that carry it, the Aedes aegypti, most likely to be found?
The number of cases that have been reported has decreased over the past few months, but if you think about it, it has not been mosquito season. And because it has been a very wet rainy season, we are anticipating and getting ready for an overflux of mosquitoes. The Greater L.A. Vector Control District, glavcd.org, has a very nice summary of the different types of mosquitoes that live in the county and their habitats.
Do we have other mosquito-transmitted diseases in L.A. County?
There are several, unfortunately. The World Health Organization has called the mosquito the deadliest insect in the world because it kills over 750,000 people every year. So it’s not just Zika here in L.A. Also we have West Nile virus, which can be fatal. We also have the risk for malaria. Those are the big ones.
Where and at what times of day are mosquitoes most likely to bite?
They can bite, unfortunately, at any time, day and night.
Are there places where we’re more likely to see mosquitoes?
Wherever there is freestanding water. And the freestanding water can be found in something as small as the cap for a water bottle or a potted plant, if you have a little plate for the plant that collects the water underneath it. Mosquitoes can lay eggs there, and as soon as it gets warm enough, they can hatch and the mosquitoes can start to bite. So the most important advice is to avoid having any freestanding water.
Where should families look for freestanding water around the home?
The most common places are if we have potted plants outside or even toys. If the kids are playing outside and leave the toys outside, the sprinkler goes off and then there’s a little bit of water that accumulated on the toy. You just have to be super vigilant. Take 10 minutes once or twice a week to toss or tip everything that could eventually have freestanding water. The other tip that you can do is to use mosquito repellant.
For children, it’s safe to use the EPA-registered active ingredients DEET and picaridin. But the best thing to do is to have the kids wear – and I know, because I have a 10-year-old son, and they’ll fight you – long sleeves or pants. Get them maybe the cotton or the light ones, and socks, because the mosquitoes are good at attacking the tiniest of spaces. And at home, make sure you’re closing doors so that the mosquitoes don’t come in. Many times kids are running in and out and the doors are left open.
Tell me what that conversation is like with your son when you want him to put on long sleeves and long pants and it’s hot outside and he doesn’t want to do that. How do you explain all that to him?
I help him make the right choice. I say, “You know, I’ve read that there’s increased mosquitoes in this area and we need to be cautious. And you know that you can get bit by a mosquito and it can have West Nile, it can have Zika, it can have a whole host of other diseases and you can get pretty sick, and then you’re not going to be able to play. So here’s a way to decrease exposure. Let’s put some mosquito repellant on you, and here’s a light long-sleeved shirt and pants that you can wear.” Usually I don’t win with the pants, but with the long-sleeved shirt I can win if it’s a very light cotton. So that’s where I am really proactive with the mosquito repellant. And he also becomes a little more responsible too. He says, “Mommy, look. There’s some water accumulating here. You have to be careful.” So it really is training our kids on being proactive. Don’t underestimate our kids.
Are there any other ways Zika can be transmitted?
Zika can also be transmitted sexually. All of the cases in L.A. have been acquired through travel, and there are some that have been acquired through sexual transmission when the partner traveled. It’s really important for people to remember, when they come back from vacation in an area with Zika, to use mosquito repellant for three weeks. If the person is bitten by a mosquito here locally and they happen to have Zika – and only 20 percent of the people bitten by a mosquito infected with Zika virus have symptoms – then we could have an endemic case of Zika here in L.A.
So at this point we have not had endemic cases of Zika?
No we have not. We have them in Texas and we have them in Florida, but not yet in L.A. It could happen. So we really have to be proactive when we come home from summer vacation.