West Aussies versus the local mozzies

This is a special guest post from Dr Abbey Potter, Senior Scientific Officer, Environmental Health Hazards, WA Health. I’m currently mentoring Abbey as part of The Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA (PHAIWA) Mentoring Program. Its been a great experience as we navigate through some of the strategies to raise awareness of mosquito-borne disease and advocate for better approaches to addressing the public health risks associated with mosquitoes.

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Living in WA, we’re all too familiar with the pesky mosquito. We know they bite but what we often don’t consider is that they can transmit serious and sometimes deadly diseases. In fact, a recent survey of locals indicated that knowledge of mosquito-borne disease is pretty limited, particularly among younger adults aged 18-34 years and those living in the Perth Metro. It’s pretty important we’re aware of the risks posed by these pint-sized blood suckers and how you can avoid them… and here’s why!

The Facts

On average, more than 1,000 people will be infected with a mosquito-borne disease in WA every year. Our mossies can transmit Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus, West Nile virus (Kunjin substrain) and Murray Valley encephalitis virus. All four cause diseases that are debilitating at best, causing weeks to months of symptoms. Murray Valley encephalitis is limited to the north of the State but is so serious it can result in seizures, coma, brain damage and even death.

Forget the bush, most people bitten in their own backyard. West Aussies are all very prone to getting eaten alive while socialising outdoors but if you’re up in the north of the State, you’ve also got a much higher likelihood of being bitten while boating, camping or fishing or working outside, compared to the rest of the state.

And don’t think you’re off the hook when you head off on holidays. A further 500 WA residents return from overseas travel with an exotic mosquito-borne disease every year. Heading to Bali? Beware of dengue, especially young adult males who return home with the illness more than others. There is limited mosquito management in many overseas countries where disease-transmitting mozzies can bite aggressively both indoors and throughout the day. This catches West Aussies off guard, as we are accustomed to mozzies biting outdoors, around dusk and dawn. When you’re in holiday mode it’s likely that you’ll be relaxing, having a couple of drinks and not thinking about applying repellent. Oddly enough, mosquitoes may actually be more attracted to people whose body temperature is higher. This happens naturally when you consume alcohol, so best pull out the repellent before you crack your first beer.

Despite our attractiveness to mosquitoes, we aren’t really aware of the most effective ways to avoid bites or how we can do our bit to reduce breeding in our own backyards. If you live by the mantra Cover Up. Repel. Clean Up you’ll have no problems!

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Western Australia has some amazingly beautiful wetlands but these saltmarshes around Mandurah can produce large populations of nuisance-biting mosquitoes!

Cover Up

If you know you are going to be outdoors when mosquitoes are active, wear loose, long-fitting clothing that is light in colour. Believe it or not, mosquitoes can bite through tight pants as tough as jeans – I’ve witnessed it!

If you’re staying in accommodation that isn’t mosquito-proof, consider bed netting.

Try to keep children indoors when mosquitoes are most active. If exposure can’t be avoided, dress them appropriately and cover their feet with socks and shoes. Pram netting can also be really useful.

Admittedly, it’s not always practical to wear long sleeves during our warm summer nights, so there are going to be times when you need to use repellent. Choose a product that actually works and apply it appropriately so it does the job. Despite our best intentions, this is where we often go wrong. There are a few basic things to cover here, so stick with it!

Ingredient: Science tells us that the best active ingredient for repelling mosquitoes is diethyltoluamide (DEET for short) or picaridin. You need to look for either one of these names on the repellent label under the ‘active constituents’ section.

Unfortunately, natural repellents and anything wearable (e.g. bands, bracelets or patches) have very limited efficacy. Experts don’t recommend you use them and I consider this very wise advice. It only takes a single mosquito bite to become infected and chances are you will receive at least one if you rely solely on a product of this nature. It just isn’t worth the risk.

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Percentage: The next thing to consider is the percentage of the active ingredient. This can range anywhere from 7% to 80% which can make choosing a repellent confusing. Just remember, the higher the percentage, the LONGER the product will remain active for. It doesn’t mean it will repel mosquitoes better.

A repellent containing 16-20% DEET will provide around 4-6 hours of protection, and is a good place to start. Repellents labelled ‘tropical strength’ usually contain greater than 20% DEET – they are useful when you spend longer periods exposed to mosquitoes or if you are heading to a region where dengue, malaria or Zika is problematic. Kids repellents usually contain picaridin or <10% DEET.

Sometimes it can be tricky to work out the percentage of the active ingredient. You can see the Bushmans example below states this clearly, but the other bottles list the ingredient in grams per litre (g/L). No need for complex maths – just divide by 10 and you have the magic number! For example, the RID label below reports the product contains 160g/L of DEET. This would convert to 16% DEET – easy!

You can see a few examples here of effective repellents:

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How to Apply: No doubt we would all prefer if repellents didn’t feel quite so gross on our skin or didn’t smell so bad. Even I have to admit that before I moved into this field, I was guilty of putting just a dab here and a dab there. Unfortunately, this is flawed logic that will only result in you being bitten!

Repellents must be applied correctly to be effective. That means reading the label and applying it evenly to all areas of exposed skin. Remember to reapply the product if you are exposed to mosquitoes for longer than the repellent protects you for. You’ll also have to reapply the repellent after sweaty activity or swimming.

For more information on repellent use in adults and children, click here.

Clean Up

Mosquitoes need water to breed, but only a very small amount. Water commonly collects in a range of things you may find in your backyard including pot plant drip trays, toys, old tyres, trailers and clogged up gutters. Mosquitoes also love breeding in pet water bowls, bird baths and pools if the water is not changed weekly or they are not well maintained. Rain water tanks can also be problematic so place some insect proof meshing over any outlets. When you’re holidaying, cover up or remove anything that may collect water.

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If you need more official info from WA Health about mosquito-borne disease or simple ways to prevent being bitten click here. And if you want to read more about how much West Aussies know (or don’t know) about mossies, check out Abbey’s excellent paper here! Joint the conversation too on Twitter by following Abbey and Cameron.

Safely avoiding mosquito bites when pregnant

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Hundreds of millions of people fall ill due to mosquito-borne pathogens every year but the recent rise in birth defects associated with Zika virus emerging in the Americas has health authorities on alert.

Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, primarily by the Yellow Fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Since its discovery in Africa around 70 years ago it has avoided the public health spotlight due to the relatively mild illness it causes. Throughout Africa and Asia it is overshadowed in importance by the diseases caused by malaria parasites as well as dengue and chikungunya viruses.

For background on the rise of Zika virus, see my article for The Conversation.

Zika and the health risks to those pregnant and their unborn children

While Zika virus has yet to be fully confirmed as the causative agent in birth defects (such as microcephaly), there is clearly enough concern among health authorities in many parts of the world to issue warnings to those pregnant to avoid travel to countries experiencing an outbreak of Zika virus.

Authorities in Columbia and El Salvador have even gone so far as to advise residents to avoid falling pregnant for up to two years.

The Australian Government issued the following advice via their SmartTraveller website:

“Until more is known about Zika virus, and taking a very cautious approach, we advise women who are pregnant (in any trimester) or who plan to become pregnant to consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. If you do decide to travel, talk to your doctor first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip.”

For many, the option of not travelling will be easy. But what if you still want to travel? What if you’re doing business in some of these countries? What if you need to travel to visit family? Cancelling a trip isn’t always the easiest options.

Reducing risk of mosquito-borne disease while travelling

Irrespective of the current Zika outbreak, travelling while pregnant brings various health and safety risks.  Other mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, also pose a risk to pregnant women and their unborn children. These serious risks existed long before Zika virus grabbed the public health spotlight.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine currently available for Zika virus. Vaccines are in development for dengue viruses and anti-malaria drugs are available so consult your local travel health clinic.

While travelling, staying indoors as much as possible, particularly air-conditioned accommodation, will greatly reduce exposure to mosquitoes. This may not be how you expected to spend your time during a South American holiday!

Many people associate mosquito-borne disease with wetland or jungle environments but as Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes found in urban habitats (e.g. water-filled containers), travellers should not be complacent if only visiting cities. Some of the biggest recent outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease have been in major metropolitan regions in the Americas and Asia.

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Mosquito control in Brazil, a striking image of the battle against container-inhabting mosquitoes (Image: Ernesto Benavides via International Business Times)

If you’re staying at a high end resort, chances are there will be a well established insect control program. This typically includes widespread spraying for insecticides to knock down any mosquito populations. This may not completely remove risk but it will substantially lower potential exposure to mosquitoes. Again, don’t be complacent and take special care to avoid mosquitoes if taking a day trip to local villages or other tourist attractions.

Sleeping under a bed net is usually recommended in regions where malaria is an annual problem but this may not offer that much protection against Zika virus as the mosquitoes that spread the virus primarily bite during the day. If you’re planning on taking some afternoon naps, make sure it is under a bed net. A range of insecticide treated bed nets are available from your local camping store.

There is also an ever increasing range of “pre-treated” insect repellent clothing but evidence is scarce on just how effective these are at preventing bites. Treating clothing with insecticide (e.g permethrin) yourself would be a better option but don’t expect that wearing treated clothing means you don’t have to put insect repellents on exposed skin.

Safe and effective use of mosquito repellents

There will be anxiety among many about using insect repellents while pregnant. Are they safe? Will they impact the baby?

Without doubt, the most commonly used, safe and effective mosquito repellents is DEET (I’ve written about these repellents extensively, see here and here but I’ll summarize below). This is found in lots of major commercial brands and is a mainstay in the recommendations issued by health authorities the world over. Problem is, it can be hard to find information on how to choose and use the repellent that’s right for you and your situation.

The first point to remember is that the the strength of the formulation determines how long you’re protected against mosquito bite, not how many mosquitoes are kept away. For example, a 10% DEET based repellent may provide 2h protection, a 20% formulation may provide 4h protection. When choosing a repellent, think about how long you need protection for and how frequently you’re happy to reapply.

Secondly, the repellent must be applied as an even coverage on all exposed skin. If there are “gaps” in the application, mosquitoes are sneaky enough to pick a spot to bite. In the case of the mosquitoes that spread Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses, pay special attention to application around the lower legs and feet, that’s where they like to bite.

Be sure to reapply repellent after swimming or sweaty exercise too.

There is no need to apply mosquito repellents to skin under clothing.

Are repellents safe to use when pregnant?

Health authorities and regulatory agencies rarely provide specific warnings on the use of insect repellents by those pregnant. While there haven’t been many clinical trials, these papers (here and here) demonstrate a lack of documented significant health risk associated with the used of DEET-based repellents. Most notably, a study of almost 900 women using mosquito repellent in the second or third trimester and no adverse neurologic, gastrointestinal, or dermatologic effects were observed in women or their infants for a year after birth.

It is important to balance the distinct lack of evidence of major health risks associated with repellents to the rapid rise in microcephaly in Brazil. Repellents can stop mosquitoes bites, stop mosquito bites and remove the risk of infection. If you use registered mosquito repellents as directed on the label, they are effective and safe.

Common sense must prevail. Even if you’re concerned about the use of repellents, make some compromises while still protecting yourself for infection. Choose a lower dose DEET-based repellent and reply more often. This is a better approach than trying a repellent that hasn’t been proven effective.

I’m often asked what formulation works best. There are aerosol sprays, roll-ons, pump-pack sprays, creams, gels, lotions and even towelettes. There really haven’t been many scientific studies looking at which if these formulations work best, and for good reason. As the active ingredients in these formulations are the same, it doesn’t really matter. The critical issue is to choose a formulation that you’re most comfortable using to ensure you get a good coverage over exposed skin. I like creams and pump-pack sprays but I generally apply the product to my hands first and them spread across skin.

Always ensure you avoid getting repellent in your eyes or any cuts or abrasions.

I don’t like the smell or feel of mosquito repellents!

There is often a temptation for those who dislike DEET to use a “natural“, plant-based repellents. Notwithstanding that these products provide shorter periods of protection, tea-tree oil (particularly when used in home-made concoctions) also has the potential to cause skin irritation. While plant-based mosquito repellents may offer some protection against nuisance-biting mosquitoes, they shouldn’t be relied on to prevent mosquito bites in regions of mosquito-bore disease outbreaks.

Many health authorities recommend para-Menthane-3,8-diol (PMD), a product commonly known as “oil of lemon eucalyptus”. This is not an essential oil but rather the by product of the distillation process of Corymbia citriodora. The product does repel a range of biting insects and there is no evidence suggesting it should not be used in pregnancy. However, in Australia, this product is generally more difficult to find in grocery stores and pharmacies than DEET- or picaridin-based repellent formulations.

It would be brilliant if there was a non-topical options for stopping mosquito bites. Unfortunately, there is nothing that has been proven effective. Do not rely on mosquito repellent wrist bands as they do not provide adequate protection against mosquitoes. Also, remember that there is nothing you can eat or drink that will stop you being bitten by mosquitoes.

Rounding out the advice on mosquito repellents, make sure you pack some before you leave. You can never be sure of what products will be available at your destination or whether it has gone through the process of registration (e.g. APVMA in Australia or EPA-registered in the U.S.). It is not unheard of for mosquito repellent stock to sell out during outbreaks of disease.

Lastly, if you’re travelling to regions experiencing dengue, chikungunya and Zika virus outbreaks, don’t necessarily expect to be swarmed by mosquitoes in the same way you will around many of Australia’s coastal wetlands. Don’t be complacent if there are only a few about, remember, it only take one bite to transmit a pathogen. Don’t wait until you notice mosquitoes biting, wake up and put on that repellent.

There is a great set of questions with answers provided by the CDC for pregnant travellers on Zika risk and prevention and here is another reminder of the travel advice provided by the CDC and Australian Government for pregnant women.

If planning to travel while pregnant, consult your local doctor or travel health clinic for advice.

Want to learn more about the amazing world of Australian mosquitoes? Check out “A Field Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia” out now through CSIRO Publishing. Over 200 pages containing a pictorial guide to almost 100 different mosquitoes along with tips on beating their bite and protecting your family from the health risks of mosquitoes. You can order online or through your favourite local bookstore or online retailer.

 

 

Should we mix mosquito repellents and sunscreens?

MosquitoRepellents_childarm_webbCombining mosquito repellents with sunscreens, as well as other cosmetics, sounds like a great idea but perhaps it isn’t to best way to protect ourselves from exposure to both the sun and mosquitoes.

There are formulations that combine mosquito repellents with various skin moisturizers but the most common combination formulations contain sunscreen and repellents. A combined formulation make sense given that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer anywhere in the world. Even the Cancer Council have their own “Repel Sunscreen” formulations.

Combined formulations but conflicting risks

As well as questions regarding the efficacy of these formulations, there have also been some questions regarding their safety. Do they lessen the protection against the sun? Do they lessen the protection against mosquitoes? Do they increase the potential risk of toxic reactions to mosquito repellents?

One study found that the inclusion of mosquito repellent in sunscreen actually reduced the sun protection factor of the sunscreen. In 2009, I published a paper in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health that investigated the efficacy of combined sunscreen and insect repellent formulations. The key finding was that no loss of protection from mosquito bites was provided by these combined formulations when compared to low and high dose “mosquito repellent only” formulations. The finding supported previous studies that indicated sunscreen does not reduce the efficacy of insect repellent. However, where we went further was to try and provide some guidelines for use of these products to maximise mosquito bite protection but also to minimise any potential adverse reactions to repellents.

I've provided plenty of deail of how to choose and use mosquito repellents in the "beating the bite" guidelines freely available for download

I’ve provided plenty of detail of how to choose and use mosquito repellents in the “Beating the Bite” guidelines freely available for download

This issue of conflicted use was highlighted in a review of sunscreen labelling recommendations and combination sunscreen/insect repellent products that outlined concerns that “the application of a combination product too frequently poses the risk of insect repellent toxicity, whereas application too infrequently invites photodamage”.

Could combined formulations raise potential over exposure to mosquito repellents?

It is important to note that many published studies and reviews have shown that DEET does not pose a significant health concern (see here too). A recent review of safety surveillance from extensive humans use reveals no association with severe adverse events. In short, if a DEET-based mosquito repellent is used as recommended, there are no major concerns for health risk.

What if the use of a combined repellent and sunscreen formulations results in the application rate of repellent above and beyond recommended rates?

How much repellent are you using with sunscreen?

The recommended use of sunscreens and repellents are quite different. As well as the frequency of reapplications (sunscreen every two hours; repellent reapplication is determined by the “strength” but may be up to four hours for mid-range formulations), the quantity used will vary. Mosquito repellents require a thin application over all exposed skin to provide effectiveness. When the applications rates providing effective protection in mosquito repellent studies are compared to those for sunscreen use (i.e. approximately 30ml applied across the forearms, legs, torso and back 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours), application rates for sunscreens are approximately 3-5 times greater.

Are you using repellent when you don’t need to?

It is interesting to note the differences in the use pattern of sunscreen and mosquito repellent use. In many instances, nuisance-biting mosquitoes will generally be more active during periods when sun exposure risk is low (e.g. late afternoon, evening and early morning). However, as I pointed out in this paper on mosquito repellent use to reduce the risk of dengue, protection against these day-biting mosquitoes could call for the use of both products simultaneously. There is also no doubt that under some circumstances in coastal regions of Australia, mosquitoes can be out and about biting in shaded environments (places like mangrove forests and coastal swamp forests) during the day.

The Yellow Fever Mosquito, Aedes aegypti (Photo: Stephen Doggett)

The Yellow Fever Mosquito, Aedes aegypti (Photo: Stephen Doggett)

What should you do?

I’m not aware of any review in Australia to reconsider the registration or recommendations surrounding the use of combined mosquito repellent and sunscreen formulations. In most instances, the advice provided by local authorities is simply to “follow label instructions”.

Combined mosquito repellent and sunscreen formulations are not recommended by the CDC. It is worth noting that also in Canada, combined sunscreen and insect repellents are not recommended. It is suggested to apply the sunscreen first, then the insect repellent over the top. The only problem is that as repellent will generally last longer than sunscreen, you end up alternating application of the two products.

We tested the idea that repellents should be applied first and then sunscreen over the top. While testing the efficacy of sunscreen wasn’t in the scope fo our study, we found that the efficacy of repellent (as measured by the duration of protection) was actually reduced. The reduction, we concluded, was probably due to physical disruption of the original mosquito repellent application during subsequent sunscreen application.

It should be noted once again that repeated reviews have concluded that DEET-based repellents pose a very low risk of adverse health impacts. However, if you were to take a cautious approach, if there is a risk of possible adverse reaction to repellents, this may be more likely to happen when using high dose DEET-based repellents (e.g. “tropical strength” repellents that may contain over 80% DEET) in combination with sunscreen. If you want to lower the risks as much as possible, using a low-dose DEET-based (e.g. containing less than 10% DEET), or picaridin-based, repellent will more closely align the recommended reapplication times of the two products.

If you’re looking for sunscreen advice, visit the Cancer Council website here.

The full reference for our 2009 paper is below:

Webb, C. E. and Russell, R. C. (2009) Insect repellents and sunscreen: implications for personal protection strategies against mosquito-borne disease. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 33: 485–490.