Buzz off! Efficient Methods To Repel Bites Throughout Monster Mosquito Season In Australia | Australian way of life


“Got it!” says my husband, brandishing a tennis racket-like zapper in his pajamas while I grope my head back on the pillow and pray that the rest of the night will be free of incessant buzzing and biting.

Our weapon of choice works well for us once we find the elusive little vampires. All over the world, people use all kinds of deterrents, from eating garlic and soaking cigarette butts in alcohol, to burning animal dung, spraying diesel and windex, or drinking gin and tonic. Then there are ultrasonic bracelets, sonic plugs, and carnivorous plants.

These desperate measures weren’t just designed to avoid an annoying irritation. Some mosquitoes can transmit diseases, the most common in Australia being the Ross River virus.

You don’t want the Ross River virus because you can be quite unwell, Prof. Craig Williams

This year’s wet spring and summer are expected to create particularly fertile breeding conditions as La Niña weather patterns bring more rainfall — particularly in the north and east.

“It’s probably the biggest risk I’ve seen in the 35 years that I’ve been working on mosquitoes,” says Professor Stephen Doggett of Sydney’s Westmead Hospital of the risk of mosquito-borne disease.

“We’ve had two years in a row where it’s been extremely wet and in situations like that we’re at greater risk of the really nasty mosquito-borne viruses, particularly in south-east Australia.”

Mosquitoes need still pools of water to reproduce successfully, so their populations are affected by weather and related conditions. But only a very small percentage of Australia’s 300 species – home to less than 10% of the world’s species – transmit disease.

Dengue fever, one of the more serious mosquito-borne viruses, occasionally makes its way into northern Australia. Malaria, another notorious mosquito-borne deadly disease, was eradicated here in the 1980s. Both diseases tend to occur in people who have picked them up abroad. However, some Australian mosquitoes carry the risk of serious illnesses.

“You don’t want the Ross River virus because you can get quite uncomfortable,” says Prof Craig Williams, a mosquito expert from the University of South Australia. “But there’s Murray Valley encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease, and it’s deadly. And those it doesn’t kill will be neurologically impaired for the rest of their lives.”

This rare brain-damaging virus is found primarily in northern Australia. But in some wetter years it can be found in central and southern Australia. “So that’s a concern,” Williams says. “It’s not that common in humans, but when you’re traveling it’s just not worth getting bitten by a mosquito.”

So, which of the countless ways to avoid being bitten actually work? And are there other safety concerns among those who do?

Deet is considered the most effective and long-lasting topical repellent, although many people are concerned about its toxicity. While some studies have shown potential health effects from its use, deet is generally considered safe when used properly.

Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital advises that products containing up to 10% Deet are suitable for children in low-risk areas of mosquito-borne diseases, while products containing up to 19.5% Deet are suitable for children in high-risk areas.

A catnip plant.A 2019 study in Nature showed how catnip can repel mosquitoes by activating an irritant receptor. Photo: Zen Rial/Getty Images

Other studies report different levels of protection when using plant-based repellents that contain phytochemicals that plants have evolved as a defense mechanism. In general, more research is needed on their effectiveness.

A 2019 study in Nature showed how catnip, which is reported to be at least as effective as chemical repellents like deet, repels mosquitoes by activating an irritant receptor. PMD from lemon eucalyptus extract has also shown effectiveness in preventing malaria and is the only plant-based repellent endorsed by the US Centers for Disease Control.

An Australian study by the University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital found that bracelets impregnated with botanicals might help prevent some mosquito landings, but they weren’t as effective as deet and wouldn’t protect your whole body.

Mosquito coils can help act as a Mosquito coils can help act as a “barrier” when used outdoors, but can also be irritating for asthmatics. Photo: Atjanan Charoensiri/Getty Images/EyeEm

It’s important to be vigilant and use the most reliable product possible when you’re in an area at risk for mosquito-borne diseases, says Doggett. He warns that using ineffective methods or not regularly reapplying repellents can create a false sense of security.

If you don’t have asthma, Williams says using citronella or sandalwood coils or burners outdoors as a second line of defense can help. “I set them up as a sort of boundary, a barrier around the quarterdeck.”

What about carnivorous plants? Sure, they might attack a few mosquitoes in the bedroom, “but if 10,000 mosquitoes are flying around, it’s not going to do much,” says Doggett.

The wind from an electric fan helps keep mosquitoes away at night.The wind from an electric fan helps keep mosquitoes away at night. Photo: Brazzo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For indoor use, some plug-ins claim to repel mozzies with noise, but Williams says there’s no evidence of their effectiveness.

Other plug-in options include repellents that release odorless insecticides into the air. These are reportedly effective, but again, some are concerned about the health effects. Outside the home, Williams cautions against using insecticides that kill other beneficial insects like pollinators.

On the other hand, the modest household fan is very helpful. “A fan will work because mosquitoes generally try to avoid the wind,” says Williams. “Once you get past a certain wind speed, they can’t fly, so that’s definitely a help.”

Both Williams and Doggett also advocate the sensible methods of avoiding bites: stay indoors at dawn and dusk when possible, especially in infested areas; wearing long-sleeved, loose-fitting clothing; Ensuring screens are placed on windows and doors are kept closed; and make sure your garden is free from puddles of still water (even in the bottom of potted plants).

More broadly, concerned citizens are participating in a Mozzie Monitor public health initiative. “We’re really trying to protect Australia through a diverse and diffuse citizen surveillance network,” says Williams. The Citizen Science program aims to help conduct risk assessments, detect changes in mosquito patterns and enable rapid response when exotic disease-carrying species are discovered.

The involvement may even make you fall in love with the little critters. “There are a lot of incredibly extraordinary mosquitoes on this planet,” says Doggett, who is writing a book on The World’s Weirdest Species. “I want to look at the other side of mosquitoes, their amazing behavior, the diversity. And some are very beautiful.”

Williams agrees. “Some of them are very pretty,” he says, directing readers to photos on iNaturalist. “And there are those that don’t feed on blood, they feed on nectar from flowers, and there are bright orange ones and small, tiny, black, silvery ones.”

They also form an important part of the food web, Doggett says. A world without mosquitoes would mean “extensive environmental damage.”

“If we didn’t have them, the world would be screwed.”

This article was modified on December 6, 2021 to correct a factual error. The play previously described malaria as a virus, but the disease is caused by a parasite.

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