Metro Health sanitation worker sprays mosquito pesticide on trees at Lady Bird Johnson Park. Credit: Roseanna Garza / San Antonio Report

As temperatures rise in San Antonio, so does the risk for mosquito and tick bites. This year area residents should be especially aware of prevention tactics for and symptoms of the Zika and West Nile viruses, local health officials say.

Illnesses from mosquito, tick, and flea bites have tripled in the U.S. over the last 12 years, with more than 640,000 cases reported, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last Tuesday, May 1.

Of equal concern, according to the report, is that the nation may not be fully prepared to address the growing number cases and spread of these diseases.

“Because of globalization, diseases are now just one plane ride away,” said Anita Kurian, assistant director of the communicable disease division at San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. “We need to always be cautious, not let our guards down, and do our part in reducing these mosquito-borne illnesses by taking preventative measures.”

Local officials advise removing and staying away from standing water sources such as potted plant saucers and trash bins as well as wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants. Use insect repellant with the active ingredients like DEET, Picaridin, or IR3535. Those have have been endorsed by the World Health Organization for protection against disease-carrying mosquitos, which they have called “the most murderous animal on Earth.”

Of the 16 bite-borne diseases identified by the CDC, Kurian said that San Antonio residents should be most concerned about Zika, of which there were 16 cases when it first arrived in 2016 and less than five in 2017, and West Nile virus, which is endemic in Bexar County. In the first four months of 2018, Bexar County has not seen any cases of either virus.

“[San Antonio is] fortunate that we do have a good surveillance system in place, where we track for disease in mosquitoes,” Kurian said. “[Through trapping] we know that our mosquito population carry both Zika and West Nile,” and the City also tracks and reports all local diagnoses.

The failure to track and report bite, or vector, -borne illnesses in other counties and municipalities, Kurian said, is why the CDC may be concerned with the nation’s ability to combat the disease should rates begin to approach epidemic levels. Without appropriate surveillance, it is difficult to know who might catch a disease or from where.

Between 2004-16, about 643,000 cases of vector-borne illnesses were reported to the CDC – 27,000 a year in 2004, rising to 96,000 by 2016. The report notes, however, that the real numbers for mosquito-borne illnesses are likely much larger. The CDC estimates that about 300,000 Americans get Lyme Disease each year, but only 35,000 diagnoses are reported.

To control for the growing concern locally, Metro Health sanitation workers provide pest control services on public property to control for mosquitoes and protect against the diseases that they spread.

Joel Lara, senior sanitarian with Metro Health and supervisor of Vector Control Services, said that technicians are routinely checking San Antonio “hotspots” for mosquitoes, such as public parks, trails, ditches, and places with standing water. The treatment is not intended to eliminate mosquitoes, Lara said, rather, the intention is to reduce the population to a tolerable level in public spaces.

Because the city does not spray for mosquitoes on private property, residents are urged to be vigilant about pest control measures around their homes and neighborhoods.

“[Metro Health] relies heavily on the public to prevent mosquito breeding around their home,” said Mario Martinez, assistant director for environmental health at Metro Health. If a home is adjacent to a public property where mosquitos are a concern, they can contact 3-1-1  for a survey of the area, he said. 3-1-1 operators can also provide residents with information on how to best prevent mosquitoes around the home.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.