Vectors, viruses and other issues

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Vectors, viruses and other issues


SUFFOLK COUNTY—As the weather heats up, most people are drawn outside to experience all of the fun activities of the summer season. However, the price one must pay for being in the great outdoors is to serve as an occasional snack for the plethora of mosquitoes and ticks that seem to be around at this time of year, which is especially worrisome due to the diseases they could carry. And even though not all tick and mosquito bites will cause illness, they are still nuisances that could put a damper on any outing. Using the proper precautions will help reduce the chances of having to deal with the effects of these blood-sucking predators.

Dr. Scott Campbell, a medical entomologist who is a lab chief at Suffolk County Department of Health, keeps track of all bugs that transmit disease. He said that the county’s hotline number is a good way for people to get information on the current bug situation locally. “We’ve had a hotline in operation ever since the West Nile virus came to town in 1999,” he said. “Anytime there is something new, they can call that line [to get answers to questions],” he said.

The hotline is also used to help the county keep track of calls about dead birds, an indication that there could be the mosquito-borne West Nile virus in the area.

“We can’t be everywhere in the county…but we have a good idea of where it’s going to be,” Dr. Campbell noted, adding that mosquito traps are placed in those places in order to test for the virus.

West Nile is found in mosquitoes every year, but the numbers vary and are driven by weather. “Most of the activity is in July and August and is [preceded] by a wet spring and during a hot, dry summer,” said Dr. Campbell.

Though West Nile seems to be an issue every year, the relatively new Zika virus has caused even more concern and confusion because of the effects it could have on unborn children. Pregnant women that have been bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes in South and Central Americas have given birth to hydrocephalic babies (small heads). Dr. Campbell said Zika mosquitoes have not been found locally and the rare incidence of the virus in Suffolk County was due to travel to Zika-infected countries. “However, we are monitoring it,” he added.

Dr. Sunil Sood is the pediatrics chair at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore and is an attending infectious disease physician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center. He said the local public shouldn’t worry too much about Zika. “It’s not very likely here,” he said, adding that cases originating in the United States have been isolated to Miami, Fla., and Houston, Texas. “However, [pregnant women] should not be traveling to [Zika-infected] countries. Don’t panic,” he said. “Just use the proper protection.” 

Dr. Sood advises using insect repellent such as DEET. “DEET is safe,” he said. He also suggests using clothing treated with insect repellent such as permethrin. “It’s good general advice to prevent against bites.”

He said repellent is also important to prevent getting bitten by the three different types of ticks seen on Long Island: deer tick, dog tick and Lone Star tick. “Each of them can carry different pathogens,” he noted.

Although the long-established incidence of Lyme disease caused by tick bites still exists, Rocky Mountain spotted fever from ticks is also a possibility. And now another tick virus has emerged, Powassan, which could cause encephalitis. “Any of these viruses can go to the brain, though,” said Dr. Sood, adding that there have only been a handful of cases of Powassan, mostly in upstate New York and Canada. 

Even in the most unlikely circumstances for any of these tick and mosquito-borne illnesses, both doctors strongly recommend using repellent and keeping an environment that’s been proven to be unfriendly to these insects, such as getting rid of standing water on property and keeping doors and window screens closed.  

“You should be prepared every year, every season,” Dr. Sood added.

The Suffolk County Public Health Information Hotline is 631-787-2200 and is available Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call 631-852-4270 to report mosquito problems or stagnant pools of water as well as dead bird sightings. Robins, crows, blue jays and hawks are birds typically affected by the viruses.

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