My family and I like traveling in the tropics. We like warm weather and sandy beaches, and, generally, staying within the tropical belt of the planet makes for cheap travel. What I don’t like about the tropics, though, are the mosquitoes.
Central America was relatively easy to get to when we first looked at a map and started to figure out where we would start our family travels back in 2009, and, as my husband and I already speak Spanish, it seemed to good first region to travel with our daughter Petra. The only problem was that this is predominately a warm region within the tropics, and, if not hiding out in the highlands, we would need to do battle with mosquitoes.
Not only are mosquitoes annoying, they also carry more diseases in the tropics than their brethren in more northerly climes. Malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile Virus are just a few mosquito transmitted diereses. Generally speaking, these are all serious illnesses for anyone who catches them, but they hit little baby bodies harder than adults.
So how to prevent your child from getting a mosquito transmitted disease when traveling?
While there is no outright way to 100% prevent catching some of these illness in the tropics, save for not going into areas where there are mosquitoes, there are some things that you can do as a parent to ensure that your little one is as safe as possible.
Before you travel
Research possible mosquito borne diseases that are prevalent where you are going and talk to your doctor about them, check out the CDC website, and try to get in touch with other people who have traveled there, or, better yet, who live there. If your child is over one year old, it is safe for them to get vaccinated for yellow fever (Note: that this can often be done for free while in countries that have the virus while costing hundreds of dollars if done in a place that doesn’t).
When you arrive at your destination, take a trip to a local hospital and talk to the doctors and nurses about recent out breaks of mosquito borne diseases in the immediate area. Different areas contain different risks, and they can often give you information that can set your mind at ease or, in some cases, make you worry even more! I found that this is the best way to gauge the true risk of mosquito transmitted diseases in a certain place at a certain time.
Keep in mind that talking with locals about mosquito transmitted illness prevention can be a hit or miss affair, as some will be able to offer good advice while others do not seem to have a clue. Keep in mind, that these people grew up with the possibility of receiving such a disease and many will or have already have had such an affliction before, so their perspective is going to be a little different than your own.
Also, try to find out the behavioral patterns of mosquitoes in the location you are in. For example, in Maine we are used to mosquitoes that bite at sunset and through the night, but the mosquitoes that spread Dengue Fever in the tropics often bite during the day. Many areas of the tropics also have rainy seasons where the chance of being excessively bitten by mosquitoes rise rampant. Keep this in mind as you travel, and consult the more information links at the bottom of this page. So do your homework and find out when, where, and in what season the mosquitoes that can spread diseases are most active, and take due precautions.
Our experience of dealing with mosquitoes after two years of tropic travel with a child
Petra did get bit by many mosquitoes when were traveling. MANY TIMES. All types of insects seem to love her, mosquitoes especially. They flock to her. My husband Wade and I will sit next to her and not have one bite between us and Petra will get ten. Wade even jokes that he does not need to wear bug spray if he is near Petra, as they all go straight to her. Luckily, she hasn’t gotten any diseases from them yet. But we also go to reasonable extents to prevent this from happening when in areas where mosquito borne illnesses are rampant.
Vaccinations and prophylactics
At two years old, we just recently vaccinated Petra against yellow fever while in Colombia. We did this less as a health precaution — contrary to popular belief yellow fever is not very common in many countries where it is said to exist — and more to satisfy the immigration requirements of other countries which could demand proof of vaccination before allow us to enter if traveling from a “yellow fever” country. But I must say that I am happy that Petra has this extra level of protection against this very serious disease none the less.
As for malaria prophylactics, we have so far avoided them completely. Nobody in my family takes them, as they are often harsh drugs with a multiplex of side effects. As we travel full time, often in countries where malaria is present, we do not feel that taking powerful medication regularly for years on end is in our best interest. This is our call, all travelers need to make this decision for themselves.
Our pediatrician told us the best prevention was using up to 10% DEET insect repellent on Petra’s clothes. We were pretty hesitant about doing this though. While insect repellent containing DEET is more effective, it is also toxic, heavy duty stuff to be putting near our little one. So we used an insect repellent with Picaridin instead. I would take Petra’s clothes and hat outside (far away from her so she wouldn’t breathe it in) and spray her clothes in the morning and her pajamas before bed.
If you want to use repellent on a baby’s skin, the CDC recommends that you apply the repellent to your own hands and then rub it on the child’s skin, avoiding the hands, eyes, mouth and applied carefully around the face and ears.
A simple step to drastically reducing the number of mosquitoes biting you at night is using a mosquito net. A permethrin treated mosquito net gives you even better protection, repelling and killing mosquitoes at the same time. They also keep their potency even after washing. Mosquito nets can be a little hard to find and more expensive in the US, but are commonly sold wherever there are mosquitoes in the tropics. We picked up a net for $5 in El Salvador. Petra called it her princess tent. Some hotels and hostels provide them, some don’t, so don’t count of them to provide one for you, especially one that doesn’t have holes in it.
I thought at first that we were going to have trouble in hotel rooms finding a place to hang our mosquito net, but we didn’t, as most rooms in this region come with beams, a nail in the wall, or something to attach it to.
Also commonly sold in the tropics are mosquito nets for baby carriers and strollers as well as small pop up mosquito net tents for babies in cribs.
It is hot at sea level in the tropics, so you don’t want to wear a lot of clothing. Especially for little babies. Petra is very prone to heat rash in hot climates, and we liked to keep her cool as much as possible, but we also wanted to protect her from mosquitoes. One of the better ways to prevent mosquitoes from biting is covering yourself with clothes and a hat.
I asked other mothers, local doctors, people on the street about if they cover their children in clothing to inhibit mosquitoes from biting them, and they all just sort of shrugged — you must judge the risk of mosquitoes versus the discomfort and risk of being too hot and make the best decision you can.
Though I can recommend that you at least bring light long sleeved clothes and pajamas with you, and make the decision to use them day by day.
Locals swear that a fan on your bed blows the mosquitoes away. In my experience, it does works . . . well, a little.
Mosquito Bite Treatment
If Petra didn’t seemed bothered by her mosquito bites, we didn’t do anything about them. Some kids seemed more bothered by itching than others, and they don’t seem to effect Petra too much. I know other parents though who give their kids Benadryl, either by mouth or as a cream that you put directly on the bite. When I was little we got pink calamine lotion to help with the itch. We have not yet had to resort to these measures with Petra.
Possible mosquito borne illness treatment
If your child develops a fever, or otherwise becomes sick when traveling, go to a doctor’s office or hospital. I know it can be unnerving going to a medical office in a foreign country, but let me take this opportunity to put in a word in favor of this option. The main reason to do this is because the doctors have more experience with the diseases in their area, and are better able to recognize and diagnose them. I cannot stress this more: if your child gets ill in a location and you think it may be a mosquito borne fever (or for anything else for that matter) get local help first. Do not travel to another city or another country or go home. Local doctors often know what illnesses are affecting their region, and may be able to nail a diagnoses immediately that would confuse a doctor in another location (this is especially true as mosquito borne fevers often resemble other illnesses in their initial stages).
To find a doctor, ask a local friend, a parent, or at your hotel for recommendations of doctors. Going to a pharmacy is also often a good place to start. Catching and treating a disease early, generally leads to better results, so start local first when getting care for your child abroad, and then move to other lines of defenses as needed.
We consider mosquitoes and mosquito borne diseases in making decisions about where we travel. We are not squeamish about going into areas where there is a potential for catching a mosquito transmitted illness, but we stay away from areas that are currently having breakouts or an otherwise high prevalence of such.
Even if you want to travel near the equator, if you stay at high altitudes, mosquitoes often are not present. That being said, there are babies all over the world, even in regions where mosquito transmitted diseases are endemic. Parents in Mexico, for example, are just as concerned about their babies being bit by mosquitoes as an American traveler is when traveling in tropical regions. Talk to local parents about what they do to protect their children, and take the necessary precautions.