THE BLOG
08/24/2014 11:20 EDT | Updated 10/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Mosquito Viruses Are a Biting Concern for Snowbirds

In the coming month, close to a half million Canadian snowbirds, will seek out new homes in the southern United States. While the promise of a gentler environment is obvious, there are risks with the semi-annual migration. The lack of a freezing season means a number of pests thrive throughout the year including the ever annoying mosquito.

Geoff du Feu via Getty Images

In the coming month, close to a half million Canadians will begin their plans to forsake the impending cold of winter for the warmer climes of the south. These individuals, more commonly referred to as Snowbirds, will seek out new homes in the southern United States, primarily in Florida. There, they will enjoy fairer weather and presumably a more welcome atmosphere while the rest of their contemporaries struggle in the cold.

While the promise of a gentler environment is obvious, there are risks with the semi-annual migration. The lack of a freezing season means a number of pests thrive throughout the year including the ever annoying mosquito. Though most bites lead to a benign bump on the skin -- known as a wheal -- and that ever-present itchiness, a number of infections may also occur purporting the risk of far greater consequences.

The most infamous of these mosquito-borne diseases is malaria. Normally, this potentially lethal disease is acquired through travel to faraway lands, such as Africa, China and the Middle East. But in 2003 infections were recorded in Floridians who had no previous travel history. A subsequent investigation of the mosquito population revealed no sign of the bloodborne parasite though recent analyses suggested no further risk. Yet, surveillance continues should the pathogen wish to make a return visit.

Another significant worry for the victims of mosquito bites is dengue virus. This infection, which rarely kills has migrated from its discovery point in Africa to over 100 countries worldwide. In the last few years, dengue has made its way west and north and is now common in the Caribbean, Mexico and many parts of Latin America. In 2009, an outbreak in Key West affected just over five per cent of the population. Subsequent analysis found some mosquito populations possessed the virus and researchers feared it might be stabilized in the State. Yet, by 2012, there appeared to be no further cases. Just to be sure, surveillance continues to ensure the population is safe.

A third threat is West Nile Virus although for up to 80 per cent of people, there are no symptoms. But for those who have pre-existing conditions, compromised immune systems and other chronic ailments, infection can cause symptoms ranging from feelings of the flu to a potentially lethal neuroinvasive disease. The virus has been endemic for over a decade although it appears to come and go in waves. In 2012, Florida saw 69 cases, the highest since the peak back in 2003. This year, while the virus has been found in birds across the State, there is no sign of the virus in humans.

Granted, all three of these viruses are not uncommon to Canadians and in the latter case, infections have appeared north of the Border. But last month, a new visitor with a strange name and a rather painful manifestation came to Florida leaving health officials scrambling to ensure it doesn't make the Sunshine State its home.

The condition is known as Chikungunya and was first isolated back in the 1950s in Africa. The name comes from an indigenous language meaning "to become contorted," which describes the symptoms of illness: excruciating arthritis. Research has revealed the virus, once injected into the bloodstream by a mosquito, tends to hide in synovial fluids causing severe inflammation. Depending on the ability of the immune system, the pain can last weeks to months. There is no known cure or vaccine.

Over the last decade Chikungunya has travelled halfway across the globe finding a home in the Caribbean. Starting in Saint-Martin, the virus has now spread across 15 local islands infecting over a half million people. There is little doubt the virus has fully migrated to this area.

Now it appears the virus has made its way to Florida. The first cases of locally acquired infection have been recorded and the numbers are expected to rise. Although this could be a limited, short-term event, the explosive expansion earlier in the year in the Caribbean suggests this could be just the beginning.

For snowbirds, the potential for infection may not be enough to change the annual plans. After all, a few weeks of pain may be nothing compared to months of climactic agony. But to stay safe, the best option is to follow the guidance of the CDC. This means packing long clothing for evening wear as well as insect repellent for use whenever outdoors. Also, ensure windows are screened or closed to keep the insects out of the house. To be even safer, remove any pools of standing water to prevent the mosquitoes from reproducing. Most importantly, ensure to have a health insurance plan in place so any unfortunate infections can be managed quickly and affordably.

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