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Fight the Bite: Good Advice Now...and into the Future

By Frances Tsotsos

Public Health Inspector

Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit

Mention ‘West Nile’ 20 years ago, and it may have been as part of a conversation on African geography. Today, we know ‘West Nile’ as a virus spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes.

Originally ‘discovered’ in 1937 in the West Nile district of Northern Uganda (hence its name), the virus first appeared in North America in 1999. Today, West Nile virus is firmly established across the continent. West Nile virus demonstrates how small our world has become in recent years. Diseases once isolated to one part of the globe can now quickly spread – especially with the extent of worldwide travel. Climate change is also creating conditions where diseases can flourish in places they never did before.

Take Lyme disease. Lyme is spread by the bite of an infected blacklegged tick (or deer tick). Because of favourable climate conditions, the population of blacklegged ticks is expanding into more areas of Ontario, leading to a rise in Lyme disease cases.

Both West Nile virus and Lyme disease are considered ‘vector-borne’ diseases. This means a living organism (or ‘vector’) bites and spread the illness to people. Because of climate change, ‘vectors’ like mosquitoes and ticks can expand their range – and their ability to spread disease.

We see this in the spread of Zika virus in parts of Central and South America. Although the mosquito that transmits Zika is not currently present in Canada, it’s expected that climate change will eventually increase this mosquito’s geographic range, potentially putting more people at risk.

Thankfully, there is a tried and true remedy for dealing with diseases spread by ‘vectors’ like mosquitoes and ticks. It’s a health message we have been hearing for years – fight the bite – and it provides ways to reduce our risk:

• Cover up: Applying insect repellent or bug spray containing DEET on clothes and exposed skin can keep pests at bay. Clothing also offers an important layer of protection. When possible, wear light-coloured, long-sleeved clothing to keep bugs out and make them easier to spot. On hikes, wear closed-toe shoes, tuck pants into socks and stay on the centre of trails and paths.

• Clean up: Maintaining property is another good deterrent. To reduce mosquito-breeding areas, remove any standing water outdoors that mosquitoes could use to lay their eggs. Keep brushes and shrubs clear of overgrowth and debris. For ticks, keep grass mowed short, and trim bushes and tree branches to let in sunlight.

• Check up: After being outdoors, we should always check ourselves for bites. Swipe away any mosquitoes that are trying to bite. For ticks, check the entire body for bites. If noticing a tick, promptly and properly remove it from the skin to prevent infection – then clean the bite site with rubbing alcohol or soap/water. If a tick has been feeding for more than 24 hours, seek medical attention.

• Call up: Get more prevention tips by contacting the Health Unit toll-free at 1-866-888-4577 or visiting www.hkpr.on.ca.

Let’s fight the bite of mosquitoes and ticks to reduce our risk of disease. It’s good advice – both now and for the future!