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Malaria in Florida? Here's what Orange County residents should know


Orange County mosquito control is keeping a close eye on its buzzing, buggy population after the Florida Department of Health issued a Mosquito-borne illness advisory in response to four people in Sarasota County testing positive for malaria.

All four patients have recovered but health officials aren't taking any chances.

"Residents in these areas should take precautions, such as wearing long sleeve shirts and pants, applying bug spray, and avoiding areas with high mosquito populations, especially during sunrise and sunset when mosquitos are most active," the FDOH said.

The Florida patients bring a total of five people who locally acquired malaria in the country, meaning the patients were infected in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The other case was found in Texas.

Despite Malaria's presence, the CDC said the risk of becoming infected is low.

So, what is malaria anyway?

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites transmitted through mosquito bites. It's carried by a type of mosquito called the “anopheles." Symptoms vary widely with fever and flu-like illness, including shaking chills, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea could also occur.

Today, Malaria in the U.S. is rare. The last time a local acquisition of malaria was reported was in 2003 in Palm Beach County when eight people tested positive, according to the CDC.

Prior to that, malaria was a bigger problem for the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in 1946, the CDC was establishedwith the goal of eliminating malaria to protect American workers spending time on wetland projects, which ended malaria as an endemic in the country.

What about Orange County?

So far no cases have been reported in Central Florida. One case of malaria was flagged at an Orange County hospital, however, health experts determined the patient was a visitor and contracted the parasite from outside of the United States.

Experts have been keeping a close eye on mosquito populations prior to FDOH's advisory, said Steve Harrison, the manager of Orange County Mosquito Control. Harrison's not worried about an outbreak, but if there was one, Orange has a plan in place.

Mosquitoes have a mile-long fight range and if someone did test positive, Harrison's team would target the radius of that resident’s home as a place to begin population control.

“We will increase greatly our control operations to try and knock down any mosquitoes that either bit the person while they were sick, or could potentially bite them while they are sick,” he said.

Can malaria pop up in Orange County?

Orange County was originally named "Mosquito County," by the Spanish because of the heavy presence of the biting, buzzing bugs in the wetlands. It was later changed to Orange County in 1845.

Presently no locally acquired malaria cases exist, but the county does have the right ingredients for malaria to pop up, Harrison said.

The summer heat and rain create a paradise breeding ground for mosquitoes to prosper. Additionally, Orange has a large population of anopheles mosquitoes, also known as common malaria mosquitoes. Anopheles act as a "vector," or an organism that can transmit a virus from an animal to a human.

That combined with a large, tourist-driven population could make a recipe for a malaria outbreak, Harrison said.

"Fortunately, malaria is human to human through the bite of a mosquito. As long as those individuals who are sick don't travel, they stay, isolated, they stay indoors, no mosquitoes bite them, we let them recover, and we should be out of the woods," he said.

Orange County's other mosquito-borne illness advisory

No cases of locally acquired malaria have been found in Orange County, but residents are under a different mosquito-borne illness advisory.

"In response to the mosquito-borne illness advisory that we're currently under for Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus. But as far as malaria, this hasn't changed our approach to our normal control operations,” he said.

Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus causes a neurological disease that can produce symptoms of headaches, seizures, and behavioral changes.

The Orange County Department of Health issued an advisory for the EEEV earlier this month.

How do you keep safe?

To lower the odds of developing a mosquito-borne infection, Harrison recommends draining or covering open sources of water to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. Specifically, the FDOH recommends looking at these target locations where mosquitoes thrive:

  • Drain water from garbage cans, house gutters, buckets, pool covers, coolers, toys, flowerpots, or any other containers where sprinkler or rainwater has been collected.
  • Discard old tires, drums, bottles, cans, pots and pans, broken appliances, and other items that aren't being used.
  • Empty and clean birdbaths and pet's water bowls at least once or twice a week
  • Protect boats and vehicles from rain with tarps that don’t accumulate water.
  • Maintain swimming pools and keep them appropriately chlorinated. Empty plastic swimming pools when not in use.

However, if an individual develops symptoms of fever, chills, sweats, nausea, vomiting, and headache should seek immediate medical attention.

Originally from South Florida, Joe Mario came to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida where he graduated with degrees in Radio & Television Production, Film, and Psychology. He worked several beats and covered multimedia at The Villages Daily Sun but returned to the City Beautiful as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel where he covered crime, hurricanes, and viral news. Joe Mario has too many interests and not enough time but tries to focus on his love for strange stories in comic books and horror movies. When he's not writing he loves to run in his spare time.
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