PITTSBURG — Bothersome bugs such as mosquitoes and ticks are to be expected this time of year, but besides being simply annoying these pests can also spread serious illnesses.
More research needs to be done, however, to understand the specific dangers they pose in our area. While county officials have been busy working to spread awareness of these issues, a team at Pittsburg State University has been in the field collecting new data.
Anuradha Ghosh, a PSU assistant professor and environmental health scientist whose research interests also include the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, has recently been working with one of her graduate students to gather more information on ticks in Southeast Kansas.
While most people do what they can to avoid ticks — which can spread many potentially serious illnesses including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and ehrlichiosis — Ghosh and student Leah Cuthill are doing the opposite — seeking out and collecting ticks as part of a four-year research study to gather new information on the prevalence of ticks and tick-borne illnesses. Cuthill was motivated to work on the project by her own experience contracting a potentially tick-borne illness, resulting in an allergy to red meat. Other PSU faculty, students, and community members have also been assisting Ghosh and Cuthill.
“Southeast Kansas is a hub for ticks because of the heat and high humidity,” Ghosh said, according to a recent university news release. “As our climate warms, ticks are prevailing in this direction following the migration of their hosts — they’re very sensitive to temperatures and humidity. We’re studying the distribution of various tick species and whether it’s going up or down. We’re watching for an invasion, as well.”
After collecting ticks from various locations in Southeast Kansas and the surrounding area, Ghosh and Cuthill freeze them in the PSU Biology Department’s lab. They can then identify the tick species and what pathogens they carry.
A grant will soon enable Ghosh and Cuthill to expand their project in collaboration with other universities. These include Kansas State University, the University of Kansas (KU), the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Colorado.
Work has also been underway recently to attempt to better understand the scope of the mosquito problem in the area.
At the beginning of last month, researchers from KU and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment started conducting two weeks of mosquito surveillance studies in 67 Kansas counties that have been affected by severe wet weather this year.
Early results did not show particularly high numbers of Culex species mosquitoes — those that most commonly transmit West Nile virus — in Crawford County compared to other areas of the state. In the second week of mosquito surveillance, however, the county saw higher amounts of the mosquitoes. This, along with similar results in other counties in the region, prompted KDHE to change Southeast Kansas’s rating from a “moderate” to a “high” risk of West Nile virus by the end of July.
At the August 6 Crawford County Commission meeting, officials from the county’s Health Department discussed the mosquito problem.
County Health Officer Rebecca Adamson noted at the meeting that in addition to the West Nile-carrying Culex mosquitoes detected by KU and KDHE researchers in July, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes — which can spread the chikungunya, dengue fever, and Zika viruses — are also not uncommon in Southeast Kansas.
“We do have both types of mosquitoes in Southeast Kansas,” Adamson said, adding that KDHE rates the risk of diseases such as West Nile based on the percentage of mosquitoes that test positive in each region. “So we had a high enough percentage that we are at high risk now,” she said.
While most people do not experience severe symptoms from West Nile Virus, in some cases symptoms can include high fever, brain inflammation, paralysis and even death. There is no treatment for the virus, so prevention is key, Adamson said.
Using insect repellent, avoiding being outside when possible during dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active, wearing clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible, and making sure you have functional screens on your windows if you’re going to have open windows, are all some of the best ways to prevent being bitten, she said.
Getting rid of standing water when possible is also important. There are larvicides people can buy if they have ponds or swimming pools that could be mosquito breeding areas, Adamson said. They should also pay attention to things like bird baths or old tires that could have water in them.
Bill Towery, environmental sanitarian for the Crawford County Health Department also spoke at the commission meeting and offered some tips for avoiding mosquito bites. Places where people might not realize they have standing water near their homes can include rain gutters, he said. Ultimately, however, it can be difficult to get rid of all standing water.
“Mosquitoes can breed in a bottle cap of water,” Towery said.
He added that an interesting thing he’d heard about mosquito prevention was that bug zapper traps do not seem to be very effective against them.
“Apparently the zappers only kill the male mosquitoes; I don’t know why,” Towery said. “The females survive and the females are the ones that do the biting.”
Adamson said that as far as she knows, local cities have not been spraying for mosquitoes.
In response to a question from Commissioner Tom Moody, however, she noted that while mosquitoes carrying West Nile have been found locally, no cases of the virus in humans have apparently been serious enough so far that they have been reported to the state.
“KDHE notifies us at the Health Department if we get a case and we haven’t had any cases in Kansas yet,” Adamson said, adding that Southeast Kansas has been rated at a high risk for West Nile in past years.
“This is typical in the summertime,” she said. “There’s a lot more attention on it this year. I think because of the flooding, everybody’s kind of nervous about it.”