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Late summer pests: Staying safe both on and off duty

Image of a tick and a mosquito.

Vector-borne illnesses, such as those spread from mosquitoes and ticks, can pose a significant health concern for Airmen both on and off duty. It is vital to know the risk of vector-borne illnesses and how to stay safe (U.S. Air Force graphic)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. --

As Airmen look to the outdoors for physically distant activities, the risks of pests impacting those activities increases. It is vital Airmen and their families know what to look out for and know how to stay safe.

“More time outdoors, whether for their job or recreationally, there is an increased risk of vector-borne diseases such as those spread from ticks and mosquitoes,” said Maj. Stephanie White, U.S. Air Forces in Europe - Air Forces Africa command entomologist, Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Detachment 4, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “Summer is the height of vector-borne illness season, which usually extends into September in the U.S. and can last into October in deployed locations like in Africa.”

The most prevalent pest issue Airmen and their families could face are diseases spread by ticks. This includes the blacklegged tick, which transmits Lyme disease, and the American dog tick, which spreads Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

A particularly aggressive tick is the lone star tick, which in the last 15 years, has moved from primarily being found in southern states to moving further north. The lone star tick is known to be an aggressive biter and can cause additional health concerns such as developing an allergy to red meat.

“Recent studies have found that the lone star tick is linked to the development of a red meat allergy called alpha-gal,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Davis, Armed Forces Pest Management Board deputy director. “This allergy can be pretty severe and may lead to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction that could send someone to the hospital. This condition is becoming increasingly recognized as the tick expands its range through North America.”

Mosquitoes also pose a potential risk to Airmen both at home and while deployed. Aside from being a nuisance, mosquitoes also spread disease, with West Nile virus being the leading threat in the U.S. While deployed, Airmen face additional threats such as malaria, Dengue fever and chikungunya virus.

White also warns that many diseases that are spread from mosquitoes or ticks, such as West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease, can mimic other common illnesses like the flu or current COVID-19 symptoms.

“For those who are outdoors, it is vital we pay attention to bites or tick attachments and not ignore symptoms,” said White. "There is a big overlap between some vector-borne illnesses, the flu and COVID-19. While the current pandemic is front of mind for all of us, it is also important to know the symptoms associated with a mosquito bite or tick attachment."

Below are some common vector-borne illness symptoms and the overlap they share with the flu and COVID-19:

 

Symptoms Lyme Disease RMSF WNV Influenza COVID-19
Headache X X X X X
Fever X X X X X
Muscle/Body Aches X X X X X
Nausea/Vomiting    X X X X
Diarrhea     X X X
Rash X X X    
Fatigue X     X X


“Service members and their families should speak with their health care provider should they present any of these symptoms after any insect exposure or bite,” said White.

To prevent the risk of getting a vector-borne illness, there are several steps the Air Force has taken to ensure Airmen safety while at work.

“While we do have some Air Force bases with extensive training ranges and where these pests are prevalent, there are coordinated control measures taken to help control pest populations,” said Davis. “At our installations, the public health team assesses the risk of vectors and vector-borne diseases, does surveillance, and works with civil engineers pest management to help control pest populations where Airmen would interact with them.”

“Diseases like Dengue or Lyme don’t have pharmaceutical interventions like a vaccine or medication,” said White. “We rely on preventive measures and educating our Airmen on what they can do to protect themselves.”

For individual Airmen, the Department of Defense uses a five-part personal protective system to keep them safe at home base and downrange. This includes using DEET, an active ingredient in insect repellant, on exposed skin, properly taking any medication or vaccinations if required, and wearing uniforms properly.

“Service members are issued uniforms treated with permethrin that works well in repelling those pests as long as it does not exceed 50 washes,” said Davis. “Also, service members should wear their uniforms properly. Meaning rolling your sleeves down and tucking your pants into your boots.”

“Deployed members should avoid leaving food or liquids open as this could attract pests,” said White. “Make sure to roll up your sleeping bag and shake out your shoes before putting your foot in them.”

The same safety precautions Airmen use on the job and while deployed can help keep them and their families safe off duty. Part of this is learning the possible threats in your area and taking those necessary steps.

“Buy permethrin-treated clothing at any sporting goods store, wear long sleeves and wear bright colors so you can identify pests on you more quickly,” said Davis.

For those who spend considerable amount of time where ticks are common, it is also important to conduct a tick check with a family member or close friend and properly remove it as soon as possible.

“The safest way to remove a tick is to use a pair of tweezers and slowly remove it from where it meets the skin,” said Davis. “Do not put anything on the tick or try to burn it off of you since this could cause the trauma to the tick and increase your chances of getting infected.”

“Wash bite locations with soap and water, and apply a topical antibiotic cream to prevent infection where there is a break in the skin,” said White.

Airmen and their families have access to more resources to educate themselves on what they should look out for and how to stay safe. This includes visiting the Armed Forces Pest Management Board site for up-to-date information. Public health officers at each base can also provide additional guidance.

“Often times people do not perceive that there is a risk and do not take the proper precautions to keep them safe,” said White. “It is vital to not let your guard down, know the potential risk and report any unexplained symptoms to your primary care provider.”

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