Don't underestimate the lethal mosquito

Some say the most dangerous animal on the planet is the mosquito.

If the risk to humans is measured in the likelihood of suffering potentially fatal or crippling illness or injury from contact with an animal, mosquitos have the numbers. They roam the globe in uncountable numbers divided into multiple species, dealing out malaria, zika, West Nile and other viruses at epidemic levels in tropical and subtropical regions. Unlike sharks or grizzlies, mosquitos will encounter most humans. A bloodthirsty bite easily follows.

At this time of year mosquitoes are spreading the potentially deadly Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus in the more temperate zones of the United States. In Connecticut the number of mosquitos carrying the virus has been significant. Two people in eastern Connecticut have died from the effects of infection. The state Department of Public Health has been continuously testing trapped mosquitos across the state and warning residents about where the carriers are found.

The department repeatedly publishes advice on how to avoid infection, including staying indoors at dawn and dusk, the times when the human-biting mosquitos are most active. School athletics have been curtailed in late afternoons. But high school students are still waiting at bus stops as the sun rises, and dog-walkers don't have much choice about morning and evening strolls. The only thing that will put an end to the risk is the first hard frost, which often used to come in late September in Connecticut, but hasn't arrived yet.

The only other control is to understand the risks and take them seriously. Here is what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have to say about EEE:

"Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. Human EEEV cases occur relatively infrequently, largely because the primary transmission cycle takes place in and around swampy areas where human populations tend to be limited. All residents of and visitors to areas where EEEV activity has been identified are at risk of infection. People who engage in outdoor work and recreational activities in endemic areas are at increased risk of infection. Persons over age 50 and under age 15 seem to be at greatest risk for developing severe disease when infected with EEEV. Overall, only about 4-5% of human EEEV infections result in EEE. EEEV infection is thought to confer life-long immunity against re-infection. It does not confer significant cross-immunity against other alphaviruses (e.g., western equine encephalitis virus), and it confers no cross-immunity against flaviviruses (e.g., West Nile virus) or bunyaviruses (e.g., La Crosse virus). 

"In the United States, an average of 7 human cases of EEE are reported annually. ... Most cases of EEE have been reported from Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina. EEEV transmission is most common in and around freshwater hardwood swamps in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast states and the Great Lakes region."

That would be us. Connecticut is a wetlands state heavily shaded by oaks and other hardwoods, making it not only beautiful but fertile for many species — including mosquitos. The first fatal case of EEE in a human in the state was recorded in 2013. The two deaths this year are the first since then.

It will never be practical for everyone who works or goes to school to stay inside until the sun is high and return before it sets, but neither is it wise to shrug off the risk of a disease that can kill, as rare as it is. If possible, heed this advice from the state public health department:

  • Minimize time spent outdoors around dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Be sure door and window screens are tight-fitting and in good repair.
  • Wear shoes, socks, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt when outdoors for long periods of time, or when mosquitoes are most active. Clothing should be light-colored and made of tightly woven materials that keep mosquitoes away from the skin.
  • Use mosquito netting when sleeping outdoors or in an unscreened structure and to protect small babies when outdoors.
  • Consider the use of mosquito repellent, according to label instructions, when it is necessary to be outdoors.
  • Take caution when camping overnight, especially in areas near freshwater swamps. When camping outdoors in tents in other areas, use mosquito netting and repellent.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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