Healthy Child


Don’t let mosquitoes bug you this summer

By Darcy Lewis

Last summer the newspapers were filled with West Nile headlines, transforming mosquitoes from harmless nuisances to dangerous disease carriers.

The outbreak was serious. And Illinois was one of the hardest hit states. In 2002, Illinois reported 877 cases and 62 deaths from West Nile encephalitis, the mosquito-borne virus that first arrived in Illinois a year earlier.

But the bottom line is that, while last year’s outbreak terrified many--and reinforced basic mosquito-bite prevention--there are more serious everyday concerns parents should worry about controlling.

“There are many more dangers related to obesity, poor diet and secondhand smoke than mosquitoes,” says Dr. Stanford Shulman, head of infectious diseases at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

“And don’t forget motor-vehicle accidents,” adds Dr. William Paul, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

But you will see newspaper and television pieces on West Nile. So, let’s talk about it.

It’s too early in the season to know how severe West Nile will be this year, but experts are optimistic. Its patterns show the virus always hits an area the hardest its first year.

Subsequent years bring fewer cases, says Shulman. Scientists don’t know why, but they theorize that a large percentage of the population develops immunity quickly. Also, the virus takes a heavy toll on birds, so surviving birds also develop immunity and no longer spread it.

This year, public health departments also have stronger mosquito ammunition: The pellets dropped into public catch basins to kill larvae are now longer lasting, good for 150 days instead of the usual 30.

The West Nile perception is much different from the reality. For example, West Nile rarely infects children.

“The risk to children is not zero, but they are much less affected than other ages,” says Paul. “With many similar illnesses, the young and the old are most vulnerable, but children have all but avoided West Nile. We don’t know why, but we still recommend that everyone--including children--avoid mosquito bites.”

That’s because mosquitoes do carry other forms of encephalitis. “Of these viruses, the LaCrosse virus [is one that] can and does infect children,” says Shulman. “Every summer, I treat a handful of cases in Chicago children.”

An ounce of prevention Get rid of mosquitoes by getting rid of stagnant water. Water that has been standing for more than four days in buckets, tires or even children’s toys, is perfect for egg-laying mosquitoes.

“The Culex mosquito, which spreads West Nile virus, is an urban opportunist that actually seems to prefer artificial containers for its breeding grounds,” says Paul.

Local health departments suggest you:

• Drain and refill wading pools, birdbaths and plant saucers at least every four days. Turn them over or store them indoors when not in use.

• Empty and refill pets’ water bowls daily.

• Fill in any holes or low areas around your yard.

• Keep grass and weeds short to eliminate hiding places for adult mosquitoes.

• Be sure window screens fit well and are in good repair.

• Keep gutters clear so they can drain properly.

• Get neighbors to eliminate standing water on their properties, too. “Kids are great enforcers for the family and the neighborhood,” says Paul.

Repel those critters It’s also important to keep mosquitoes from biting. “The judicious use of mosquito repellent makes sense if you must be out when mosquitoes are biting,” says Shulman.

Since Culex mosquitoes tend to bite at dusk and dawn, avoid the outdoors then. If you are outside at these times, local health departments recommend wearing socks, shoes, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Admittedly, those last two might be a tough sell during the muggy heat of a Chicago summer, which makes mosquito repellent even more important.

The most effective repellents contain DEET, which appears on ingredient lists as “N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide.” The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses using DEET as long as the concentration is 10 percent or less.

“There are few well-described reports of problems related to DEET,” says Paul. “People should follow the directions carefully, but not out of undue fear that DEET is harmful.”

Precautions include:

• Don’t use DEET on infants.

• Don’t use DEET if you are pregnant.

• Don’t allow young children to apply repellent themselves.

“Parents should spray the DEET on their hands, apply it to their child’s exposed skin, then wash their hands afterward,” says Paul. “And don’t apply DEET to the hands of thumb suckers.”

Darcy Lewis is a freelance writer who lives in Riverside with her husband and two boys, ages 3 and 8.

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