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Harford health officials urge prevention, protection against mosquitoes

As Harford County and state health agencies track West Nile virus and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, such as chikungunya and dengue viruses, the Harford County Health Department cautions residents to take appropriate measures to reduce their risk of infection.

According to the health department, people can reduce the risk of being infected with WNV by using insect repellent and wearing protective clothing to prevent mosquito bites.

"Prevention is key and there are actions individuals can take to reduce the risk of mosquito-borne infection," Harford County Health Officer Susan Kelly said in a release.

According to Kelly, those measures include, "avoiding areas of high mosquito activity as well as avoiding unnecessary outdoor activities at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active. Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and hats when concerned about mosquito exposure and use an EPA-registered insect repellent according to package directions. Also be sure to place mosquito netting over infant carriers when you are outdoors with infants."

There are no medications to treat or vaccines to prevent WNV infection. Fortunately, most people infected with WNV will have no symptoms, the county health department said in a news release. However, about one in five people who are infected will develop a mild form of the illness referred to as West Nile fever, with symptoms that may last a few days or as long as several weeks.

Fewer than 1 percent of infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurological illness, with symptoms such as high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis, the health department said. These symptoms may last several weeks, and effects on the nervous system may be permanent.

Harford County recorded one of the first West Nile virus deaths in Maryland, when a 76-year-old Bel Air man was diagnosed with the disease in August 2003 and died the following January.

Maryland had more than a dozen West Nile cases reported in 2012 with at least one fatality.

Although most people are at low risk for WNV, people 50 years of age and older have the highest risk of developing severe illness if infected, the health department noted. People who spend a lot of time outdoors have a greater risk of being bitten by an infected mosquito.

The symptoms of chikungunya infection resemble those of dengue, another serious mosquito-borne infection that is common throughout the Caribbean islands. This infection is not transmittable from human to human but occurs when mosquitoes that become infected after feeding on infected people, feed on humans. People experiencing symptoms including fever, joint pains, headache, muscle pains, or rash should seek medical care, while health care providers should be on the alert for possible cases.

The Asian tiger Mosquito an invasive pest from Asia, that behaves differently from native mosquitoes, also has become more of a problem in the U.S, the health department said. Tiger mosquitoes are more aggressive, will follow people into their homes and come out during the day.

"In addition to personal protection, prevention requires attention to your surroundings," Kelly said, adding the public can "help reduce the number of mosquitoes in outdoor areas where they work or play by draining any sources of standing water, even small ones, where mosquitoes can lay their eggs and breed."

Kelly also recommends:

• At least once or twice a week, empty water from flower pots, pet food and water dishes, birdbaths, swimming pool covers, buckets, barrels, cans, or from any other place where you find standing water.

• Check for clogged rain gutters and clean them out if necessary.

• Look for containers or trash in places that may be hard to see, such as under bushes or under your home.

• Install window screens and repair damaged screens. Fix dripping faucets.

• Aerate ornamental pools and water gardens or stock them with fish and use a circulating filter system.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has posted a new web page this season at mda.maryland.gov/plants-pests/Pages/avoid_asian_tiger_mosquitoes.aspx to help residents identify what kind of mosquitoes they have and providing tips for reducing breeding grounds for Tiger mosquitoes.

For more information on the West Nile virus, visit the Harford County Health Department website at http://www.harfordcountyhealth.com or phone 410-612-1781.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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