Vector-Borne Diseases and How to Avoid Them

Common summer vector-borne diseases

Vector-borne diseases — that is, diseases spread by vectors like mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas — cause approximately 700,000 deaths annually. These account for about 17% of all infectious diseases, including malaria, dengue, schistosomiasis, yellow fever, and more.

Small but deadly

Though most common in tropical and subtropical latitudes, vector-borne diseases can spread wherever their vectors can survive. Mosquitoes and ticks are the most common carriers of these illnesses, accounting for thousands of deaths each year.  

Various species of mosquitoes can carry different diseases.

  • Aedes mosquitoes can carry:
    • Chikungunya
    • Dengue
    • Lymphatic filariasis
    • Rift Valley fever
    • Yellow fever
    • Zika
  • Anopheles mosquitoes can carry:
    • Malaria
    • Lymphatic filariasis
  • Culex mosquitoes can carry:
    • Japanese encephalitis
    • Lymphatic filariasis
    • West Nile fever

Likewise, ticks can carry the following diseases:

  • Crimean-Congo haemmorhagic fever
  • Lyme disease
  • Relapsing fever (borreliosis)
  • Rickettsial diseases
  • Tick-borne encephalitis
  • Tularemia

While mosquitoes and ticks are the most common causes of vector-borne illnesses, lice, sandflies, fleas, aquatic snails, and blackflies can also carry dangerous diseases. 

Identifying ticks

There are hundreds of tick species worldwide; however, only a few species cause the most common tick-borne diseases. Three main groups transmit diseases to humans and pets: blacklegged ticks (including the deer tick), dog ticks, and lone star ticks.

Identifying ticks is the first step to protecting from vector-borne diseases.

  • Deer ticks are small, usually no bigger than a sesame seed, and the most common tick in the United States. They have a reddish body with a black dorsal shield, and are most commonly found in the Great Lakes, upper Midwest, and East Coast.
  • The western blacklegged tick looks almost identical to the deer tick, but with a more oval body, and is most often found on the West Coast.
  • The lone star tick is medium-sized, reddish-brown, and round. Females have a white dot on their dorsal shield. While most commonly found in the Southeastern United States, they’ve also been found as far north as Maine.
  • American dog ticks are the largest common tick. Brown with ornate dorsal shields, these ticks often have white markings. Though often found on dogs, these ticks can feed on humans. Dog ticks are typically found in areas east of the Rocky Mountains.

Recommended: Diagnosis and Management of Tick-Borne Illness

Identifying mosquitoes

In most parts of the United States, summer is synonymous with sunshine, swimming, and mosquito bites.

Though they resemble their cousins the crane fly, the mayfly, and midges, female mosquitoes are the only ones that feed on human blood. (Male mosquitoes feed on nectar.)

Each species of mosquito has unique coloring. The Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens) is pale brown with whitish bands on the abdomen. Yellow Fever Mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) have white markings on their legs, while Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) are black with white markings on its body and legs.

Recommended: Common Outdoor-Related Issues

Avoiding vector-borne diseases

Protecting yourself, your family, and your pets from vector-borne diseases requires knowledge, vigilance, and a few simple good habits. Insect repellents that contain 30% DEET or permethrin offer decent protection from many types of vectors.

Additionally, when spending time outdoors, consider theses tips to protect yourself from mosquitoes.

  • Wear loose-fitting, light clothing. If in an area with especially heavy mosquito population, consider a head net.
  • Avoid outdoor activity during peak mosquito feeding times, especially dusk and dawn.
  • Mosquitoes thrive on moisture. To avoid pools of stagnant water, throw out any items that may hold water, such as unneeded or unused buckets, cans, and toys.
  • When possible, opt for air conditioning rather than opening windows.
  • Repair screens on windows and doors.

When walking, hiking, or swimming, consider the following tips to protect yourself from ticks.

  • Check for ticks at least once per day. Research indicates that most ticks must be attached to the skin for at least 48 hours to transmit disease, though anaplasmosis may be transmitted more quickly.
  • Shower when coming in from outdoors. This increases the likelihood that a tick will be found.
  • Remove ticks promptly. Use a pair of tweezers to remove the tick by the head, then pull the tick out of the skin slowly and gently. Afterward, clean the area with soap and water.
  • Check clothing and gear for ticks before bringing indoors.
  • Keep frequently used green spaces mowed and free of brush, which can minimize habitats for ticks.

Resources

Preventing Mosquitoborne Disease. (2020). Minnesota Department of Health. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/mosquitoborne/prevention.html

Preventing Tickborne Disease. (2019). Minnesota Department of Health. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/tickborne/prevention.html

Tick Identification Guide. (n.d.). Www.Tickcheck.Com. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://www.tickcheck.com/info/tick-identification

Vector-borne diseases. (2020, March 2). Who.Int; World Health Organization: WHO. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/vector-borne-diseases

What Does a Mosquito Look Like? (n.d.). Terminix.Com. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://www.terminix.com/blog/whats-buzzing/simple-ways-to-identify-a-mosquito/

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