We had a nightly ritual when I was growing up. Before the power went out, which was generally around 10:00pm, we would walk around the house and exterminate as many mosquitoes as we could find. It was not unusual to see my dad clapping in the air or lunging at the wall with an exaggerated swatting motion, celebrating when his hand landed on one of the nearly invisible insects.
Even though hunting mosquitoes was a cheap form of entertainment, it wasn’t just a game. For seven years, my family lived in Burkina Faso, a sub-Saharan country in West Africa. Each mosquito had the potential of spreading serious illness, particularly malaria, to our family.
If you have watched the news recently, you have undoubtedly heard about the Zika virus and the debilitating birth defects it can cause. South America has already seen the virus spread like wildfire. While pandemic forecasts are not uncommon—whether it’s bird flu, swine flu, or ebola–Zika poses a significant risk in this country, and with the confirmed transmission of the Zika virus by mosquitoes in Miami, its spread to other parts of the United States appears to be likely. Since there is currently no cure or vaccine, prevention is the best defense.
Zika is spread primarily in two ways: from the bite from an infected Aedes mosquito or through sexual contact with an infected person. While the effects of Zika are generally mild in most people, the virus can cause devastating birth defects to a fetus in the womb. It is for this reason that preventing its spread is critical.
- Preventing mosquito bites is the most effective way to prevent contracting Zika. If possible, avoid traveling to areas where Zika is being transmitted. Stay indoors when practical, and before going outside, consider covering up with long pants and a long-sleeved shirt or applying insect repellent.
- Remove habitat that harbors mosquitoes. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water. Buckets, uncovered trash cans, bird baths, decorative ponds, and other places water may sit for a week or more is a potential breeding ground for mosquitoes. Remove this water or use standing water tablets to eradicate mosquito larva before developing into adult mosquitoes. Maintaining foliage and landscaping can also help deter the congregation of mosquitoes.
- Use protection when having sex. This step is especially crucial for women who are pregnant. Zika can be transmitted sexually even when no other symptoms occur. The CDC recommends that all pregnant couples to use condoms throughout the pregnancy, and for couples wanting to conceive to get tested if concerned that they have contracted the virus.
Despite the very real dangers of Zika, it is not time to panic or overreact. The effects of Zika are mild, sometimes unnoticeable, in healthy adults. And microcephaly, the primary birth defect caused by the virus, is estimated to occur in less than 1% of babies born to infected mothers. Still, we all need to be prepared to take preventive measures.
But taking precautions doesn’t always translate into 100% success. During my childhood in West Africa, I contracted malaria more times than I can remember. Our nightly ritual of squashing mosquitoes could not completely protect us, neither could mosquito repellent.
It is important to note that despite a few similarities, Zika is not malaria. However, with the introduction of a new mosquito-borne threat, I find myself scanning the walls and corners of my home with a renewed intensity. After years of complacency, I find myself on the hunt again.