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Guard against diseases insects and ticks carry
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Very few insect-related deaths occur in the United States compared with the rest of the world, but that does not mean Americans can ignore the risks.
Jerome Goddard, entomology professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said millions of deaths occur worldwide each year from disease agents transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. Several diseases are more common among people living in or traveling to tropical regions, but Americans have their share and should maintain their guard to protect themselves.
Goddard said most insect-related health headlines in the United States result from cases of West Nile virus and the new chikungunya virus, which are both spread by mosquitoes.
“Encephalitis viruses, such as West Nile and St. Louis virus, create flulike symptoms including fever, headache and in severe cases, delirium, coma and death,” he said. “Although chikungunya is not usually deadly, it has similar flulike symptoms and causes very painful joints.”
Chikungunya, which means “contorted,” started its most recent advance in Southeast Asia about 10 years ago and is now widespread in the Caribbean. Locally acquired cases have been reported in Florida.
Goddard said ticks -- which are arthropods, not insects -- are also serious disease vectors.
“Lyme disease is found mostly in the northeastern United States, the upper Midwest and California,” he said. “We have not been finding Lyme in Mississippi ticks, and physicians only rarely report it here, but the symptoms are very similar to some other illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, so there could be misdiagnoses.”
One common symptom is a bull’s-eye rash around the spot where the infected tick attached to the person.
“Lyme is the No. 1 tick disease with 20,000 U.S. cases annually, but it’s rarely fatal,” he said. “On the other hand, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can become fatal very quickly. It occurs throughout the country, mostly in North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma, but Mississippi has about 30 cases every year.”
Goddard said malaria does not commonly spread locally in the United States, but a significant number of cases are imported every year by people who have traveled abroad.
Goddard said the first step in protecting against one of these illnesses is to wear insect repellents and avoid areas and times when disease carriers are most active, such as mornings and evenings.
To decrease the chance of tick bites, wear light-colored clothing, Goddard said. This makes it easier to see and remove ticks before they attach. Wear long-sleeved shirts and closed-toe shoes, and tuck pant legs into socks.
“You can spray repellents that contain permethrin on your clothing to kill them,” he said. “Apply repellents containing DEET to skin, but wash them off as soon as you return indoors. Infected ticks are so rare that odds favor safe outcomes even after a tick bite.”
Extension health specialist David Buys said if a person experiences a tick bite, the best thing to do is mark the date on a calendar.
“If you get a mysterious illness within three weeks of a tick bite, let your health care provider know about the tick,” he said. “Most tick diseases are easily treatable if diagnosed early. Certain antibiotics work well, but physicians need to know it could be a tick-related illness so they can prescribe the right one.”
Mosquito-carried dengue fever is more common for people going on cruises.
“Always let your health care provider know if you have traveled outside your area or have experienced any unusual bites or rashes,” Buys said.