Mosquito season: Avoid the itch and, possibly, West Nile

Spring has sprung and summer is on the way. The warm weather we’ve all been waiting for is here.

Time to enjoy the great outdoors. But be wary.

With warmer weather comes mosquito season. The tiny bugs with the irritating bite can be troublesome. Some of them carry the West Nile Virus.

Most of the time, West Nile Virus doesn’t cause major problems: Only a small percentage of persons infected require hospitalization.

But, as history has shown, the mosquito can be quite dangerous.

A killer

The mosquito itself isn’t that bad. Its bite can cause itchy bumps on the skin that last longer than we’d like, especially if we scratch the itch.

It’s really the diseases mosquitoes carry that make it so deadly. Diseases like the plague, malaria, the Zika virus and tularemia, not to mention untold others, have given the mosquito a dubious reputation.

“It’s the deadliest animal on earth,” said Michael Wiseman, the chief entomologist at Vector Disease Control International in Denver.

More people died from the diseases mosquitoes carried during the Civil War, than were killed by bullets, Wiseman said.

Self-inflicted problem

Mosquitoes weren’t much of a problem in Pueblo 150 years ago, Wiseman said.

“You probably wouldn’t see mosquitoes very often,” Wiseman said. “But we give them extra water, nector, blood and shade to hide from the hot sun. Without any of those things, mosquitoes wouldn’t exist.”

Humans, unintentionally, are the mosquito’s best friend.

“We create the perfect conditions for them here,” Wiseman said.

“We take water from the Western Slope and bring it here,” Wiseman said. “Without that water, you wouldn’t see much plant life for nectar, or trees for shade. There are more people here to provide them with blood.

“All four things they need to survive, we give them plenty. We’ve created a nice little habitat on the Front Range.”

The male mosquito lives off of nectar from flowers. The female mosquito consumes nectar, but needs the protein from blood to lay its eggs.

A century ago, you would find mosquitoes only in spotty conditions, Wiseman said.

“There’d be a little bit of water after spring rains, or the occasional downpour, but that would dry up,” Wiseman said.

West Nile focus

Malaria, a once-feared disease carried by mosquitoes, was eradicated in Colorado a long time ago, Wiseman said. In Colorado, the main disease experts focus on is the West Nile Virus.

“The mosquito that carries the Zika virus is a tropical mosquito,” Wiseman said. “We’re not likely to get that here in my lifetime.”

Wiseman said mosquitoes carry a variety of diseases. Precisely how many?

“No one knows,” Wiseman said. “Every day we’re discovering new things that are carried by mosquitoes. They carry diseases from the forests, from the tropics. They carry diseases that affect other organisms besides humans. We’re barely learning about those now.”

Initially, local doctors tested for West Nile virus, but after a while, they stopped the tests.

“It was easier to just treat the symptoms,” Wiseman said. “I would think West Nile is more prevalent than we know. Most people have no symptoms at all. They don’t even know they had it. Only one out of 150 gets a case where they are hospitalized.”

Another concern is people traveling outside of Pueblo and encountering disease-carrying mosquitoes from other climes. They can bring those diseases back to the area.


Mosquito on White

Fighting mosquitoes

The reason mosquitoes aren’t a big problem in Pueblo is thanks to the Pueblo City-County Health Department, which hires firms like the one Wiseman works for to keep mosquito infestation down.

“We constantly have technicians looking for larvae,” Wiseman said. “We go after the larvae in water. That helps to keep the mosquito population down. If it rises above a certain level, nighttime spraying is done.

Despite their hard work, there is no end in sight to the war against mosquitoes.

“As we continue to change our habitat, the mosquito problem is going to escalate,” Wiseman said.

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Battling mosquitoes

There are ways to reduce the problems of mosquitoes. The most effective way is to follow the “four Ds.”

Wear repellent-containing Deet

Drain long-standing water in your yard.

Avoid being out at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.

Dress appropriately. If you have to be out, wear long sleeves and long pants to minimize the amount of skin exposed.