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Insects and Disease

As the weather gets warmer, children play outside and insects find new meals. After the concerns for Zika virus over the past few years, there is heightened awareness for diseases passed through animal vectors.

Diseases such as Powassan virus are rising in incidence as the tick population grows and spreads the disease to new parts of North America. Although the CDC reports “100 cases of POW virus disease were reported in the United States over the past 10 years,” the illness caused by this disease can be extremely serious. While many people do not have symptoms, those who do become ill can develop neurological symptoms and difficulty breathing. What makes this so dangerous is that there is no cure and symptomatic treatment is not all that effective. Powassan and Lyme disease are not the only illnesses caused by tick bites. “Things such as babesiosis and anaplasmosis usually don’t have symptoms, just like Powassan, though both may cause severe or even life-threatening illnesses” (CNN). Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is also often overlooked, but can be serious if not treated appropriately. In 2017, a woman affected by the illness lost her limbs to the disease. However, it is important to remember that although these infections can be very serious, the incidence of these severe attacks are rare. Rather than being afraid to play outside, knowledge about the disease and proper precautions are the best tools.

So, what research is being done to learn more about the illnesses passed to people through insects like ticks and mosquitos? An article on CNN this week reveals that a new study found a link between fetal brain development and certain viruses. If this sounds familiar, it should. This study expands on the knowledge that the Zika virus causes birth defects by testing the affect of other viruses on pregnant mice. The other viruses testes are chikungunya virus, Mayaro virus, West Nile and Powassan virus. West Nile and Powassan are classified in the same viral family as Zika. The study reveals that, “although all four viruses caused placental infection, only infection with the neurotropic flaviviruses (WNV and POWV) resulted in fetal demise.” Although it is not a causal link between infection and birth defects found in this study, there is definitely some sort of association.

How is it that we didn’t identify these links before now? Well, until the Zika epidemic, it was possible that there was not strong enough evidence to warrant a study. For instance, there may have been so few cases of Powassan that any defects that could be associated with the infection were overlooked because they were so few and far between. Additionally, it is possible that any of the defects that occur as a result from infection occur years later in development.

What can you do right now to limit your risk of exposure to these illnesses? Rather than staying cooped up in the house, take the right precautions. The CDC recommends that we wear insect repellant containing at least 20% DEET and you cover your skin with long clothing to prevent exposure. According to an article in Safety and Health magazine, tucking in these clothes and wearing light colors can prevent tick bites. There is even information on how to properly check for ticks. So, while we have not effectively eliminated these diseases, there are ways to prevent your exposure, which will limit your chances of developing a serious disease.

As awareness and research continue to grow, more resources and treatment methods will become available to protect the public from diseases and to treat possible exposures.

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