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June 14, 2013

Jurassic Park Menace

The movie Jurassic Park gave us all a thrilling look into the world of dinosaurs, some of the largest creatures to walk the Earth. The ingenious storyline brings them back to life with a little help from a miniature supporting actor whom every one of us has already met, the ordinary mosquito.

Mosquito under a microscope

Image Credit: National Institute of Health

Since its appearance on the planet 100 million years ago, the mosquito has diversified into 3,000 very different species. There are about 170 different kinds of mosquitoes in North America alone, most of which (or so it may seem) can be found right outside your tent at summer camp.

On a more serious note, these very unwelcome pests and their irritating bites are not to be taken lightly. They carry a parasite known as Plasmodium, which causes malaria in millions and millions of humans. According to the World Health Organization, there were about 219 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2010 and an estimated 660,000 deaths, more than 90% of which occurred in Africa.

Here in the States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that mosquitoes cause 1,500 new cases of Malaria each year, along with several types of encephalitis and West Nile virus. Malaria symptoms tend to make their appearance 9-12 days after a person has been infected. First signs include fever, headache, chills and vomiting, symptoms very similar to the common Flu virus. This can make early detection a challenge.

Malaria can, however, be easily identified with a compound microscope like the Omano OM36 or OM88. The gold standard for malaria identification rests in the laboratory, where testing of a patient’s blood smear can yield timely and life-saving diagnostic information. The technique involves 1000X examination of a thick or thin blood smear which has been stained with a Romanovsky stain such as Giemsa. Infected red blood cells will show the telltale presence of darkly-spotted Plasmodium parasites.

Image Credit: National Institute of Health

Fortunately there are a number of steps we can take to avoid the risk of mosquito-borne diseases and some of the more effective methods involve working directly with Mother Nature herself. First, try to eliminate areas where mosquitoes lay their eggs, like puddles, old tires, children’s play pools, rain gutters and mud puddles. Refresh your bird baths, wading pools and pet drinking dishes at least once a week. For those backyard lily ponds or water gardens, consider using a naturally occurring bacterium like BT (bacillus thuringiensis). Found in most garden centers, BT is nontoxic to people and fish, yet kills mosquito larvae on contact.

As for protecting yourself, it helps to keep in mind that 100 million years of evolution have turned the mosquito into an excellent blood-hunter. They instinctively home in on areas of the body where your skin is thin and blood vessels are close to the surface. Which means your uncovered, untreated ears, neck, ankles, arms and wrists act like ringing dinner bells.

You can swiftly silence those bells by covering up in loose-fitting light-colored clothing or applying herb-based treatments. Lemon eucalyptus, for example, is rated by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the best choices for protection against West Nile virus. Just remember, even though the mosquito may have out-lived the dinosaurs, with a bit of planning you can minimize their intrusion in your outdoor activities this summer.