Summer camp and mosquitoes go together like chicken and waffles, particularly in the South. But Zika virus may raise the stakes in the age-old struggle of campers versus pests. The mosquito species capable of carrying Zika can be found in much of the Southern United States.
Anxious parents need not panic; no Zika-infected mosquitoes have been identified in the country. Nonetheless, Tisha Bolger, board president of the American Camp Association, says camp administrators are particularly interested in what they can do to prevent mosquito bites this summer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't released guidelines specific to summer camps for Zika prevention, but camp managers should follow general prevention guidelines, CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes tells Shots. Many of those suggestions, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and staying inside air-conditioned buildings with windows, seem a tad unrealistic for kids having fun outdoors.
"If you've got a kid in summer camp," says mosquito biologist Todd Livdahl of Clark University, "they're wearing shorts or they're wearing swimsuits when they're outside." And unless you're sending your child to summer camp at the Four Seasons, air-conditioned cabins may also be in short supply.
Another tip in the CDC guidelines suggests treating clothing and gear with permethrin, a chemical that kills insects and can cause skin rashes in humans. "I don't see most parents deciding that's an OK thing to do," says Livdahl of coating clothes with the chemical. "Most people have never heard of this approach."
Don't lock your children indoors for a summer of video games just yet. First, some perspective.
There's still no evidence that Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carrying Zika have reached the U.S.
As of June 8, all 691 recorded cases in the country have been linked to international travel or sexual transmission. What's more, the most serious of Zika's known side effects — abnormally small heads, or microcephaly, in infants — only appears to affect babies whose mothers became infected while pregnant.
That said, campers aren't totally out of the woods.
If the culprit mosquitoes do spread to the Southern U.S., as CDC scientists have suggested they might, some campers infected with Zika could suffer fever, joint pain, and in rare cases get sick enough to require hospitalization. In a much smaller set of cases, Zika may be linked to a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. (The CDC is investigating the connection between Zika and this syndrome.)
Finally, because scientists still don't know how long Zika can stay in someone's system, it's possible that summer mosquito bites could someday cause the virus to be spread later by sexually active teens.
"I guess we're just stressing applying bug repellent more," says camp director Alyson Gondek of Camp Woodmont in Cloudland, Ga. She says the camp has not invested in mosquito netting for each of the camp's beds, another recommendation from the CDC. And she's not planning to net larger areas either.
"It would be nice to have a huge dome over our property," Gondek says, but "we'd have to net an entire 170 acres."
Managers from other Southeastern camps reported a similar approach, namely, business as usual, with extra bug spray. And several said that they hoped a drier spring would cut back on insects.
"I'm out a lot, and they all love to eat on me," says Mark Magee, executive director of Twin Lakes camp in Florence, Miss. "And I haven't been chosen this summer to be eaten yet."
Summer camps have few weapons in their arsenals to combat a potential mosquito invasion, but they may be spared in the battle with Zika, at least this season. That means administrators can focus on other staples of the camp experience: sports, s'mores and sunburn.