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Vector-Borne Diseases on the Rise

As summer approaches, health agencies are reminding us again about the need to be aware of diseases transmitted by bugs as we spend more time outdoors. A recent article by CNN gave credence to a growing concern about the rise in vector-borne diseases across the United States. According to the CDC’s recent Vital Signs report, these diseases have more than tripled across the nation in a 12-year span, with 27,388 reported cases in 2004 compared to 96,075 reported cases in 2016.

Vector-borne diseases are illnesses caused by infected vectors — most notably ticks, mosquitoes and other insects that are capable of transmitting bacteria or viruses through their bite. A person who is bitten by a vector and gets sick has a vector-borne disease.

Examples of vector-borne diseases include West Nile virus, Zika virus, Lyme disease and malaria. In the United States, Lyme disease is transmitted to humans primarily by the blacklegged (deer) tick, and this disease actually accounted for 82% of all reported tick-borne diseases in the CDC report. West Nile virus was the nation’s most commonly transmitted mosquito-borne disease, with 2012 being an epidemic year and 2016 seeing a jump in Zika virus cases.

From a broader perspective, the World Health Organization reports that more than 17% of all infectious diseases are vector-borne diseases, which lead to roughly 700,000 deaths around the world each year.

What factors have contributed to the rise in diseases caused by vectors? One reason for a larger number of tick-borne diseases is that more people are moving to forested areas where ticks live. Another is increasing temperatures, which extend the tick season and allow virus-carrying ticks to travel farther north. For mosquito-borne diseases, the major influence is the fact that people and materials are moving around the world increasingly quickly due to global travel and trade. This means those diseases can be transmitted practically anywhere in as little time as one day.

It’s important to realize the seriousness of the illnesses caused by ticks and mosquitoes, as these insects are more than mere annoyances. The diseases they can transmit are known to cause symptoms like severe headaches, fever and rash, keeping people sick at home and not feeling themselves for weeks or even months at a time.

Just remember that insect bites are preventable. To protect you, your family and your pets from insect bites, make these tips a regular practice: Always use repellents for areas of exposed skin, wear long sleeves and the appropriate clothing when near highly populated mosquito and tick areas, always check your clothing and body for ticks after being outdoors and watch for physical symptoms. Also don’t forget: Where there are mosquitoes, there are often ticks!