One day when my daughter was young she asked me, “Papa, why did God make mosquitoes?” I do remember not having a very good answer for her.
The biologist may reply with something about mosquito larvae being an important part of the wetlands ecosystem; but most people including myself, probably wouldn’t miss them if they weren’t around. Even early scientists named the mosquito that transmits malaria (to the genus) Anopheles, which is derived from the Greek anofelís, meaning “good-for-nothing”.
As a travel medicine specialist, I do know that mosquitoes represent one of the biggest health risks for international travelers; especially those traveling to tropical destinations. In our temperate climate, mosquitoes are mostly a harmless nuisance, but throughout much of the world they are vectors (carriers) for many serious and sometimes deadly diseases.
Malaria is one serious mosquito-borne disease. More than a half a million people die each year from malaria; the vast majority of them children under age 5.
Travelers are at risk of acquiring malaria as more people visit popular tourist destinations in South Asia, Africa, Central and South America and even the Caribbean. Mosquitoes that transmit malaria are found mostly in rural areas and bite at night, from dusk to dawn.
There is no vaccine to prevent malaria, but fortunately there are medications available that greatly reduce your chance of catching the disease. Visit a travel medicine clinic and your travel health provider will ensure that you have the right prescription.
If malaria isn’t scary enough, mosquitoes can also transmit Dengue Fever, which is now the most common insect borne disease in the world and endemic in more than 100 countries. Unlike malaria, the mosquitoes that carry Dengue Fever inhabit urban areas and bite during daytime hours. Currently, there are no vaccines or medications available to treat or prevent Dengue Fever.
If you are traveling to Sub-Saharan Africa or the Amazon region in South America, you could be at risk for Yellow Fever which is also transmitted by yes, you guessed it – mosquitoes. You may be required to have an official record of Yellow Fever vaccination to be allowed entry into some countries. The Yellow Fever vaccine is only available from specially certified providers and travel clinics.
So How Do I prevent mosquito bites?
As with most things health and travel related, prevention really is the key. Simply put, don’t get bit in the first place! Remember these practical tips:
- As much as possible, try to cover up with long-sleeved, loose-fitting clothing, long pants and socks.
- Use a long-acting insect repellant containing DEET, ideally 30% – 50%. Apply to bare skin and consider it your “tropical cologne”.
- If staying in a malaria endemic area, sleep under mosquito netting or in air-conditioned accommodations.
- Wear clothing treated with the insecticide permethrin for an extra barrier of protection. Soaking solution or spray may be available at your Travel Clinic. Pretreated travel apparel is also commercially available.
- Ever wonder why safari-wear is khaki colored? One reason is that insects are attracted to dark colored clothing, especially navy blue. Pack your suitcase with khaki pants and white or light tops and the mosquitoes are more likely to ignore you.
- One way mosquitoes locate their victims is by detecting the carbon dioxide that they exhale.
- Separating fact from fiction: Which insect repellants actually work? How to use them properly and safely.