Vector-borne illnesses on the rise. Why and how to protect yourself.

Closeup of a mosquito on a person's hand

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that “vector-borne” illnesses have more than tripled over the last 13 years and has become a “growing health problem” in the United States.

Kenneth Sands, M.D., HCA Healthcare’s chief epidemiologist and patient safety officer, explains that vector-borne illnesses are transmitted to humans by other organisms, such as insects like ticks, fleas, or mosquitos.

“There are many reasons why we are seeing an increase in these types of illnesses, but among the more significant include the popularity of outdoor activities and a greater human interaction with nature, encroachment into wildlife habitat by housing developments and a surge in the population of certain wildlife such as deer,” Dr. Sands said.

An increase in global travel is another factor that could explain the steady rise in vector-borne diseases, which account for more than 17 percent of all infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

With warmer weather on the horizon, Dr. Sands shares more information on the types of bug-borne illnesses everyone should be aware of and how to protect yourself and your family this summer.

What are the most common type of vector-borne illnesses and their symptoms?

Transmitted by ticks:

  • Lyme disease is by far the most common bug-borne illness in the U.S. overall.  It causes a rash at the site of the tick bite, followed by joint inflammation.  If untreated, weeks later, it may cause a more generalized illness including neurologic symptoms.
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is common in many areas, including the Tennessee area, and is a serious illness characterized by high fever, nausea and stomach pains, and (usually) a splotchy rash.

Transmitted by mosquitos:

  • West Nile virus causes no symptoms in most humans, but in 20 percent of the population will cause a flu-like illness that can be serious.
  • La Crosse virus can causes brain inflammation or meningitis.
  • Zika virus causes minimal illness, but it has been associated with birth defects in infected pregnant women.  Most Zika cases have been recognized outside the United States, but there have been Zika transmission in the extreme southern parts of the country. This is the most concerning illness because of the long-term impact of birth defects.

There are many other vector-borne illnesses, including malaria, babesiosis, Powassan, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, St. Louis encephalitis, and eastern equine encephalitis.

How are these bug-borne illnesses diagnosed?

The most important issue in diagnosing these diseases is making the diagnosis early by recognizing the symptoms and getting the appropriate patient history for potential exposure.   All can be diagnosed by specific blood tests, but in some cases, results take several days to return.  The patient can help the physician by offering the appropriate details of their travel and activities so that he/she knows which diseases may be on the list of possibilities.

What is the treatment plan?

The more common tick-borne illnesses (Lyme and Rocky Mountain) are treatable with antibiotics.  The mosquito-borne viruses do not have a specific treatment, so care is “supportive,” meaning treating symptoms such as fever and dehydration.  The main issue is to make sure that the disease is recognized early.

Who’s most at-risk for contracting these illnesses?

The individuals who are most at-risk are those with frequent contact with the outdoors, such as hikers, hunters, sports enthusiasts, gardeners, and campers.

How can we protect ourselves?  

Take appropriate steps when going outside, including:

  • Using insect repellent to protect yourself from diseases transmitted by mosquitos.   You can apply insect repellent to your skin, and there are also products that can be sprayed onto clothing.
  • If visiting wooded areas, wear long sleeves, long pants and tuck your pants into your socks.   Wearing a hat and bandana can be helpful also.
  • Check for ticks when you return home. This is important because the most common tick-borne illnesses typically require the tick to be attached to the skin for at least 20 hours.
  • If you have a pet, make sure that they are protected from ticks as well. Check your dog for ticks each day.
  • Remove sources of standing water in your yard, such as flower pots and birdbaths. These can serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos.

Dr. Kenneth Sands serves as HCA Healthcare’s chief epidemiologist and leads enterprise-wide initiatives in health services research, infection prevention, and patient safety.

Dr. Kenneth E. F. Sands HCA Healthcare executive

HCA Healthcare 50th Anniversary
In 1968, HCA Healthcare was conceived by two physicians and an accomplished business leader — Dr. Thomas Frist Sr., Dr. Thomas Frist Jr., and Jack Massey. This year, HCA Healthcare celebrates its golden anniversary and the culture of caring established by our three founders 50 years ago. To help us celebrate our 50th year, we’ll share stories here that reflect HCA Healthcare’s mission – above all else, the care and improvement of human life – and our pledge to improve life and make history for the next 50 years and beyond.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 182 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

Recent articles