Op-Ed: After Mild Winter, Be More Aware of Diseases Spread by Animals
If you’re a fan of snowball fights, sledding or cold nights sitting by a warm fire, the winter of 2016-2017 was not a good one for you.
If you’re a tick or a mosquito, the mild winter and a wet spring have led to a significant bump in your activity.
If you’re a bat, it’s unclear yet how the mild winter will impact your activity this summer. Experts think it will lead to a shift in the population, but they aren’t sure if that shift will go up or down.
Since some insects, bats, and rodents can carry disease, changes in their activity and populations are concerning for human health.
With a mild winter, we’re expecting a higher population of insects locally this year. This means mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects are breeding and hatching earlier this spring. Insect activity in Northern Kentucky typically peaks in June, July, and August; this year’s unusual weather may lead to an early arrival of a large number of bugs.
Rainy, hot, and humid weather is perfect for the mosquitoes, so periods of spring and summer storms will only add to the usual pesky population.
While most local insects don’t carry disease and are only a nuisance, there is some reason for concern. In Kentucky, we are beginning to see cases of Lyme disease that were acquired in the Commonwealth, where in the past, human cases of Lyme were typically found in Kentuckians who’d traveled and become infected elsewhere.
Mosquitoes can transmit the West Nile virus, which can be fatal in some cases in humans. We are also watching the transmission of the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, too. So far, only five Northern Kentuckians have been diagnosed with Zika, and all contracted the virus outside the United States. But, the possibility of Zika arriving in our local mosquito population, either from a human who contracted the virus elsewhere or the migration of the disease in the mosquito population, is a possibility for which the Health Department will be monitoring.
To protect yourself from insects, use an EPA-approved insect repellent when you’ll be outdoors—even for a short time or in your backyard. Be sure to wear light-colored clothing. When temperatures allow, wear long sleeves and long pants. You can also purchase clothing treated with a chemical called permethrin to repel insects.
To control mosquito population, eliminate standing water, which prevents mosquitoes from breeding. Make sure the screens on your windows are in good condition, and repair and seal your septic system.
Bats and rodents are active in the summer, and often come in contact with humans.
Locally, we’ve seen a sharp rise in bat exposures among local residents. This is a concern because bites from bats are now the most common cause of rabies in people in the U.S. In 2016, approximately 20 cases of bat exposure were reported to the Health Department; 12 bats were available for rabies testing and luckily none of those tested were found to be infected. However, in recent years we have seen bats test positive for rabies locally.
Be sure to check your home to make sure bats can’t enter:
- Seal up entry points such as gaps under the eaves or soffit
- Make sure the flashing on your chimney and the chimney cover is intact and in good condition.
- Put screening on attic vents to allow for air flow, but not for bats to enter.
- Pest control companies can help you assess your house further.
Rodents can also carry infections, such as hantavirus, salmonella and E.coli. To prevent exposures to rodents, don’t have debris outside, including branches, where rodents can nest. Don’t leave food for pets out for long periods of time, as rodents may feed on it.
You should also teach children not to touch unfamiliar or wild animals.
While the weather forecast can be difficult to predict year-to-year, we do know that the methods to prevent exposure to insects and wild animals—and the disease they may carry—are tried and true.
Dr. Lynn Saddler is the district director of health at the Northern Kentucky Health Department