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West Nile virus and Lyme disease: reducing your risks

May 25, 2018
With winter well behind us, many people are happily heading into the garden, on the trail, to the water, enjoying the sun and the warm, fresh air.

 

 

 

 

By Dr. Charles Gardner

With winter well behind us, many people are happily heading into the garden, on the trail, to the water, enjoying the sun and the warm, fresh air. Any outdoor activity, be it cycling, walking, paddling or just enjoying time in a park with friends and family, provides an opportunity to increase physical activity, benefitting overall health. There is a growing body of research showing that the time spent in green spaces — whether in parks, playing fields, forests or gardens — provides benefits for your mental and physical wellbeing.

There are some risks in the outdoors from bugs that can transmit disease through their bite, and the news media have focused a good deal of attention on Lyme disease and West Nile virus. However, the outdoors can be safely enjoyed with the application of some knowledge about prevention.

Some species of mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus. They prefer to breed in urban or suburban settings, in stagnant water in storm sewers, bird baths or ditches. Removal of standing water on your property helps to reduce this risk. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, and so the use of personal protection to prevent insect bites should be taken to reduce risk. Generally the number of people diagnosed with the disease is low in Simcoe Muskoka, but there was some increase in cases last year.

Lyme disease is an infection from the bite of a tick. There are many kinds of ticks, but only the blacklegged tick is known to spread Lyme disease in Ontario. These ticks prefer tall grass or shrubs where they may attach to any animal or person that brushes by. Unlike mosquitoes a tick’s bite causes no sting or itch, and because of their size may go undetected. In Simcoe Muskoka, health unit surveillance has shown a gradual increase in the number of blacklegged ticks.

Public Health Ontario produces an annual map of estimated risk areas for Lyme disease. This year’s map for the first time includes two portions of Simcoe County, where blacklegged ticks were found through active surveillance. Blacklegged ticks have also been submitted from other areas in Simcoe and Muskoka. Both Lyme disease and West Nile virus can cause flu-like symptoms that begin with headaches, achy muscles and joints, fatigue and fever. Lyme disease often comes with the warning of a rash in the shape of a bulls-eye at the site of the bite.

To reduce your risks, wear loose fitting, light-coloured clothing and use repellents such as DEET or icaridin applied to clothing or on exposed skin. When hiking it also is recommended to tuck socks over pant cuffs, and stick to the centre of trails away from underbrush.

Ticks will cling to the skin for as long as a week. However, removing ticks that are found in less than 24 to 36 hours reduces the risk that they will transmit disease. Showering within two hours of coming home from a hike will help wash any ticks from the body. Doing a body check for ticks following activity in grassy and wooded areas is recommended. If you find a tick attached to your body, or notice a bulls-eye shaped rash developing, it is recommended that you seek medical attention for an assessment. It would also be helpful to bring the tick in a plastic bag or jar for submission.

These simple measures will ensure your safety and that of your family while you enjoy all that the outdoors of Simcoe and Muskoka has to offer.

More helpful information on dealing with mosquitoes and ticks can be found on the health unit’s website at www.simcoemuskokahealth.org/bugsthatbite.

Dr. Gardner is Medical Officer of Health at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit


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