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Summer Health Threat: What Parents Should Know About Mosquito-Borne Illnesses

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You are dedicated to watching over your children's health. As a parent, you can probably spot impending illness. You know instinctively whether a cut finger needs stitches or not. However, recent news reports about health threats from mosquitoes may have you concerned. Worry is never productive, but information is, and with mosquito season around the corner, parents should understand the health threats these insects pose.

Which mosquito spreads these diseases?

First of all, you need to be able to identify the culprit most often responsible for current mosquito-borne illnesses. The species Aedes aegypti is the vector (agent of transmission) for yellow (dengue) fever, chikungunya, and the currently infamous Zika virus. This mosquito is quite small--less than one inch in length--and is recognizable by its white-speckled legs and the marking of a lyre on its thorax. Only females bite. Unlike other mosquito species, Aedes aegypti is active during the day and indoors. This species is found across the southern half of the United States and up the East Coast as far as New York, especially in warm months.

Could my child become ill with one of these viruses?

Only two viruses borne by Aedes aegypti are of concern to you, unless your family travels to other countries.

  • Yellow fever is not a threat in the United States; it occurs mostly in Africa and South America.

  • Chikungunya, a virus contracted mostly in Central and South American countries, is beginning to creep into the southern United States. Travelers infected abroad return to the U.S. and are bitten by local mosquitoes. This spreads the illness throughout that region. Experts warn this virus could become a real problem once it gains ground.

  • Zika virus is currently only seen in U.S. citizens infected in other countries. However, because it is more easily transmitted than other mosquito-borne illnesses--it is the only one of these three to spread human to human through sexual contact--it is more likely to become a health threat here. Further, because it can cause a birth defect called microcephaly, it is especially dangerous to pregnant women.

What symptoms should I watch for in my children?

Chikungunya and Zika virus share four common symptoms: headache, fever, muscle aches, and joint pain. Because these symptoms are similar to the flu, you might miss the fact that they point to serious illnesses. Look for these defining symptoms to signal the need to take your child to the pediatrician:

  • Chikungunya is distinguished by high fever accompanied by joint pain so severe it can be paralyzing.

  • Zika virus symptoms often co-occur with conjunctivitis. Because conjunctivitis does not usually cause a fever, red eyes plus a fever are cause for concern.

If your child is diagnosed with chikungunya or Zika virus, don't be alarmed. Neither is fatal and your child will likely make a full recovery. Although there is no cure for either illness, symptom relief can make your child more comfortable. Your pediatrician will report the occurrence to the Centers for Disease Control so that scientists there can monitor the prevalence of the disease.

For more information, contact a pediatrician.