With the warm weather upon us, parents and kids alike are eager to revel in the outdoors again. Yet given all the recent media reports over mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and West Nile – not to mention the continuing threat of Lyme disease – should parents be taking extra precautions? Here’s what you need to know:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika virus disease is “spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes).”
Currently limited to regions in South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Zika symptoms can be mild, leaving people unaware they’ve been infected, says Sheila Nolan, M.D. chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. Unfortunately, Nolan adds, new research indicates “developing infants are potentially at risk if a pregnant woman acquires the disease.”
The CDC notes, “There have been reports of a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly in babies of mothers who
had Zika virus while pregnant.” In addition, the CDC and Brazilian authorities are also investigating a possible link between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder causing muscle weakness or even paralysis.
There is no vaccine to prevent Zika. Currently, prevention measures are linked to travel. As Nolan explains, “We’ve only seen local transmission of Zika in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. We’ve had reports of sexual transmission in the U.S. but no reports of actual local transmission. The current recommendation if you are pregnant is to consider postponing a trip to any of these potentially affected areas.” Female travellers are furthermore advised to avoid pregnancy.
Because of potential sexual transmission, Lauren Adler, M.D. of Westchester Health Pediatrics, says women with male partners who’ve recently travelled to affected areas may also want to avoid becoming pregnant for a few months. “We don’t know yet exactly how long that potential for sexual transmission is.”
Finally, avoid mosquito bites. Adler says, “The particular mosquito that transmits Zika virus is much more active in the daytime.” Protect yourself day and night, she says. Wear pants and long sleeves, use EPA-approved DEET-containing repellents and permethrin- treated gear. Repellents are not recommended for infants under 2 months of age, says Adler, but mosquito nets over strollers are an alternative.
Because the Zika story is still evolving, experts advise parents to review updates from the CDC and local health units.
Another mosquito-borne illness, the West Nile virus was first detected in North America in 1999. While most people experience mild symptoms if infected, the CDC reports the virus can cause febrile illness, encephalitis and meningitis. Nolan says, “The very old, the very young and people who have some immune-compromised status tend to be the ones most at risk for symptomatic and potentially severe disease.”
With no vaccine or treatment, prevention again is key. “It’s really just keeping the mosquitos away,” says Nolan. Local health departments and the CDC track West Nile virus each summer and Nolan recommends those sites for local updates.
The CDC says, “Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.”
With Lyme disease – including a newly discovered strain, Borrelia mayonii – Nolan says, “We have effective antibiotics for all the Lyme issues but trying to prevent the tick bites is important.” She says the CDC’s prevention website includes recommendations for repellants, instructions for treating clothes with permethrin, trimming yards, creating a protection zone around gardens with woodchips, and protecting pets.
Acknowledging Hudson Valley counties are “very, very” populated with ticks, Nolan stresses timely tick checks after kids play outdoors. “The ticks, to transmit Lyme disease, generally need about 36 hours to embed themselves deep enough and to feed long enough in order to transmit the bacteria ... even if you find a tick on your youngster, you can get it off before it has the potential to transmit disease.” Learn about proper tick removal, and if you notice a trademark bulls-eye rash, signs of illness, or are at all concerned, see your doctor, adds Nolan.
Treatment generally involves antibiotics. As the CDC notes, “Patients treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.”
Connie Jeske Crane is an independent journalist and parent who frequently writes about parenting, health and wellness and sustainability.
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