Editorial: Doing battle with ticks and mosquitoes

Thursday, May 25, 2017

T-Day, the date when the tiny, freckle-sized black-legged deer tick nymphs capable of transmitting Lyme disease start looking for a blood meal, was May 12 this year, according to UNH entomologist Alan Eaton. To make matters worse, the warm winter and wet spring means 2017 is likely to be a banner year for mosquitoes and ticks. Both have already been out and biting for at least a month. Precautions are in order.

New Hampshire is among the states with the highest incidence of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can cause debilitating flu-like symptoms and result in long-term neurological damage and joint pain. Merrimack County is among the counties where infected ticks are most common. Up to half carry the disease.

New Hampshire is also home to 47 mosquito species, according to the state Department of Public Health. That number could change as the climate warms. Fortunately the two species of mosquito known to transmit Zika virus, which can cause severe deformities to children born to an infected mother, aren’t yet found in New Hampshire. Several species can, however, transmit Eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile virus, both of which can prove fatal.

The days of being cavalier about mosquito bites are over. Reducing attacks by both little bloodsuckers to an absolute minimum should be the goal.

That could be done by staying indoors between the first and last hard frosts, but what fun would that be in a state famous for its gorgeous landscape? Instead, public health officials recommend using a tick and mosquito repellent, especially when outdoors near dusk when both the day feeding and night feeding species are seeking a snack. To be fair to them, mosquitoes do provide food for fish, birds, bats, dragonflies and other benign members of the ecosystem.

To minimize bites, experts recommend using a repellent with a DEET concentration of 30 percent or less on skin or clothing, though not on infants under 2 months old. Repellents with picaridin, a synthetic form of an ingredient in black pepper, is also effective, though less so than DEET for repelling ticks. To tip the odds even more in your favor, consider treating outdoor clothing and shoes with a product containing permethrin, a synthetic form of a chemical deriving from a species of the chrysanthemum flower. It works, not so much as a repellent but an insecticide that kills mosquitoes and ticks that touch it, though not always before a mosquito can bite. Ticks, however, must be attached for quite some time before they can transmit disease, and permethrin kills or incapacitates them almost immediately.

Manufacturers say, and independent tests show, that permethrin bonds with fabric and remains effective through a half-dozen washings. It must never be sprayed on skin, and clothing sprayed with it should dry outdoors for two to four hours before wearing. The FDA has approved its use on dogs – consult a vet – but it must never be applied to cats or sprayed near water.

Speaking of water, it’s where mosquitoes breed. An upturned bottle cap is enough. Minimize mosquito populations by eliminating sources of standing water: flower pots, atop pool and grill covers and in rain barrels or other containers. Get rid of unused tires or keep them under cover because they are mosquito farms, and keep lawns mowed short to deter ticks.

This year, be a vampire slayer.