Preventing Mosquito-borne Diseases

Local doctors offer prevention tips for tropical Spring Break travelers

Fending off pesky Mosquito-borne illnesses

photo by darren gygi

Last spring I scratched an item off my bucket list with a 10-day trip to Costa Rica. My partner and I traveled up mountain roads, through coastal villages, and along zip lines that shot us over the forest canopy. The highlight was a six-plus-hour hike up and down a dormant volcano in the thick jungle.

I returned home feeling refreshed, eagerly showing off photos of wild monkeys and the Caribbean sky. But three days later, I woke up feeling lousy. I had a high fever and the joints along one side of my body hurt so much that I could barely stand or reach for a drink of water.

Within a few hours, Urgent Care had a theory about the source of my distress: a few stray mosquito bites I picked up on that hike when I kept sweating off my bug repellant faster than I could replace it.

The number of people who come down with mosquito-borne diseases in tropical areas of the globe every year is in the millions, and American tourists traveling to destinations in Central and Latin America, Africa, and Asia are at considerable risk of picking up viruses unheard of back home. Epidemiologists continually track the prevalence of the three main culprits—Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika viruses—in various equatorial countries. While you’re extremely unlikely to catch any of the three in Minnesota, each carries potentially serious ramifications for travelers, and share similar symptoms of fever, joint aches, and dehydration.

“The way these diseases are coming to the U.S. is through American tourists returning home,” says Dr. Patricia Walker, the head of HealthPartners Travel and Tropical Medicine Center.

Because of the incubation period of these diseases—you won’t get sick until somewhere between three and 12 days after you’re bitten—they can feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. And all can be very serious: Chikungunya typically produces terrible joint pain; Dengue comes in five viral strains, so subsequent infections can sometimes lead to dangerous hemorrhagic complications; and Zika can cause major birth defects (it’s also the only one of the three that can be transmitted sexually from human to human).

A number of tropical disease clinics in the Twin Cities, including the one run by HealthPartners, can educate travelers about diseases that are prevalent in the areas they are going and how they’re transmitted, as well as such details as drinking-water precautions and the latest in bug-bite prevention (for instance, Walker suggests that my heavy-duty repellent, while effective, was also more likely to wash away with sweat than brands with lower concentrations of Deet; she recommends slow-release sprays that can last 8–10 hours).

These clinics also have up-to-the-minute information from the World Health Organization, including rain patterns that influence mosquito populations. This knowledge is the traveler’s best bet, as there are no vaccines for the major mosquito-borne viruses. Fortunately, with a few exceptions, none of these diseases have gotten a foothold in the United States whether through tourism or immigration.

In my case, after surrendering what seemed like gallons of blood to labs around the country, I got my diagnosis: Chikungunya. The prognosis was an immediate healing time of about a week (I was feeling much better by then), followed by as much as a year of lowered energy levels and continued (though not nearly as severe) joint pain.

I wouldn’t have traded that trip to Costa Rica for anything—but knowing that I would have had a much better chance of not getting sick with a little extra planning means that I’ll definitely consult a travel clinic before my next adventure.

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.