Is This Mosquito Repellent Your Best Protection Against Zika Virus?

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People around the world are understandably nervous about Zika virus now that the disease has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

Now, scientists say they may have found the best way to fend off mosquitos that carry Zika — and you can buy it at your local drugstore.

Researchers from Florida’s Anastasia Mosquito Control District, a government organization that works to control disease-causing insects, have tested several mosquito repellents and found that one in particular was especially good at repelling the Aedes aegypti mosquito: the OFF! Clip-On.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, scientists set up the repellents outdoors in the midst of hungry Aedes mosquitos and watched how they performed. The OFF! Clip-On killed mosquitos and had high repellent rates up to one foot away from the device, which researchers say is enough to protect a single person wearing it. It also had mosquito-killing and repelling abilities up to three feet away.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito can carry chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever, and is currently being targeted as the primary vector for the rapid spread of Zika virus throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. Zika virus has been linked to severe brain damage in newborns after nearly 4,000 babies were born in Brazil in the past year with unusually small heads, an incurable condition known as microcephaly.

The World Health Organization recently predicted that the virus will spread to all but two countries in South, Central, and North America (including the U.S. by late spring or early summer), and officials in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador Ecuador, and Jamaica are urging women to hold off on having children.

So it’s understandable that people would be excited to know that an $8 device can help fend off Aedes mosquitos.

“We were pleasantly surprised by our findings,” study co-author Christopher S. Bibbs, an education specialist at Anastasia Mosquito Control District who has no affiliation with OFF!, tells Yahoo Health. “In vector control, we see more often than not that tools available for consumers don’t work for the intended purpose. It was nice for a change of pace that one of these devices could actually do some good.”

While Bibbs found that OFF! was the most effective in this particular study, he notes that previous research he conducted found that the ThermaCELL mosquito repellent device is also “overwhelmingly successful” at repelling many types of mosquitos, including Aedes mosquitos.

The OFF! Clip-On works by releasing a vapor of insecticide through a battery-powered fan, forming an insecticide “cloud” around the person. OFF’s website cautions that it may be harmful if inhaled, and recommends that people avoid breathing in the clip-on’s vapor.

Is that really safe to use, especially for pregnant women who are at the most risk from Zika virus?

“Any time you inhale chemicals, there are potential side effects,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Health. Depending on the chemical in the insecticide, some of the side effects include coughing, breathing difficulty, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, she says. In the long term, chronic exposure can possibly cause lung cell changes and cancer.  

However, Wider points out that the OFF! Clip-On is designed with a fan that is supposed to blow the vapors away from a person, lowering the odds of potential side effects.

For pregnant women, Wider urges caution when using any form of chemical pesticide, which has been linked to birth defects, autism, and low birth weight. “I would not recommend using this product without speaking with your ob/gyn beforehand,” she says.

With any insecticides, Wider recommends following the directions.  However, for pregnant women, she notes that oil of lemon eucalyptus is considered safe, adding, “studies show it to be as effective as products that contain DEET.”

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