As Georgia’s mosquito season draws to a close, mosquito control professionals are looking back, evaluating the season and planning for the challenges they will face next spring.
At the top of the list of concerns, voiced at the Georgia Mosquito Control Association (GMCA) meeting this month at the University of Georgia, was chikungunya, a viral disease spread by certain mosquitoes that causes severe joint pain and flu-like symptoms. Drawing on the lessons they’ve learned from battling West Nile Virus outbreaks for the last decade, mosquito control professionals are working with UGA entomologists and Georgia’s public health officials to stay one step ahead of the painful disease come next spring.
“The GMCA meeting is a great time for mosquito control professionals in Georgia to gather and share information about emerging threats and the best efforts to protect the public from these pests and diseases,” said Elmer Gray, UGA Extension mosquito specialist and board member of the Georgia Mosquito Control Association.
The disease is rarely fatal, but it is painful and, in some cases, has caused long-term joint pain, said Rosemarie Kelly, an entomologist with Georgia Department of Public Health.
It’s described as one of those things that, intellectually, you know you’re not going to die of, but you kind of wish you would,” she said.
The virus is spread person-to-person by container-breeding mosquitoes and was first diagnosed in the Western Hemisphere in December 2013. Since then it has spread prolifically in South America and the Caribbean.
In Georgia, there have been 21 travel-related cases of chikungunya reported to the state Department of Public Health since this summer. All of these patients had traveled on mission trips or vacations to Latin America and contracted it there.
It has yet to be spread from person-to-person in Georgia because the mosquito that spreads the disease most efficiently – the yellow fever mosquito, or Aedes aegypti – is fairly rare here. In Florida, where the yellow fever mosquito population is larger, public officials started to see locally transmitted cases of the disease this summer – 11 to date.
Even though the yellow fever mosquito is rare in Georgia, epidemiologists and entomologists are worried that the Asian tiger mosquito – an invasive mosquito that has spread to every county in the state – could also spread the virus.
Over the course of the three-day conference, mosquito control officials learned the importance of developing close relationships with their local health departments as well as how trapping and identifying mosquitos can help them determine where they need to focus mosquito eradication efforts.
In an ideal situation, mosquito control would be notified when someone is diagnosed with chikungunya, and they could work to knock down the mosquito population near that house to minimize the chance of it spreading, Kelly told the mosquito control and private pest control operators at the conference.
“The sooner you know about new cases, the sooner you get control of those mosquito populations, and the sooner you can stop the spread of the illness,” Henry Lewandowski, director of Savannah’s mosquito control program, told the crowd.
Georgians who are diagnosed with chikungunya or suspect they have it after returning from their travels should avoid mosquito exposure for 10 days. Ten days after the onset of symptoms, the virus will have left the body and can no longer be transmitted via mosquito.
As with West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, the best defense is a good offense, Gray said. Gray recommends that Georgians routinely clear their yards of containers that can hold water, providing a breeding habitat for mosquitoes. He also recommends using a mosquito repellent containing DEET when spending time outdoors.