The ‘Bug Off!’ campaign was borne out of research from the team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine that highlighted the lack of awareness around insect-borne diseases. With serious diseases such as dengue and zika being a clear and present danger for travellers and expeditionists, it’s important to inform those travelling to take due care.
A recent survey of 200 people at Heathrow airport, carried out by scientists from ARCTEC, the repellent testing facility at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, revealed that 74% of travellers head off to tropical destinations without first seeking proper health advice.
60% of those surveyed said they did not use an insect repellent when travelling, with only one in ten claiming they know how to apply it properly - putting themselves at risk of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other biting insects. 35% of people said they wouldn't use insect repellent on their children – despite most repellents being safe to use on children – and an additional 30% admitted they never read the instructions if they do decide to apply repellent.
In response to the uncertainty around repellent use, ARCTEC run Bug Off!, an annual travel health campaign designed to raise awareness of insect borne diseases and the measures people can take to keep themselves safe.
Bug Off! recommends only using repellents that contain DEET, p-menthene-diol (PMD; extract of eucalyptus)”., picaridin (also known as saltidin) or IR3535 to the skin when travelling in disease endemic countries. Although there are medications available to protect against malaria, there are many other diseases spread by biting insects that can only be prevented by avoiding bites e.g. dengue, zika and chikungunya. Bug Off! aims to dispel myths about insect repellents and encourage safe use of personal protective measures. When travelling to a tropical country, holidaymakers should:
- Get advice from their GP or travel health clinic 6-8 weeks prior to travelling;
- Use the right insect repellent - make sure the ingredient list includes one of the following: DEET, p-menthene-diol (PMD; extract of eucalyptus), picaridin (saltidin) or IR3535;
- Cover up with long-sleeve tees and light weight trousers, preferably treated with insecticide;
- Pack an insecticide-treated bed net.
Some people have expressed concerns about the safety of DEET, which has led to a number of queries. However, the scientists behind Bug Off! have carried out a review of published studies and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to show that DEET is unsafe. They also conclude that the benefits of avoiding disease-spreading insect bites outweigh any theoretical risks associated with applying DEET to the skin. The review is published in the open access journal Parasites and Vectors.
In their analysis of animal research and other safety assessments carried out previously, the School researchers conclude that there is no evidence of association between severe adverse events and recommended DEET use. For those people who still don’t want to use DEET, there are three other active ingredients to choose from.
According to separate analysis by experts from the School of overseas travel, the number of visits by Britons to tropical countries went up by two million between 2002 and 2012 (4.02m to 6.03m).
This situation means even more people need to be able to access the correct facts and advice about insect bite risks and prevention - whether it is students spending a gap year in Africa or tourists going on a two-week holiday.
Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Director of ARCTEC, said: "Biting arthropods can transmit a whole range of diseases to humans and it is vital to protect ourselves. Vaccines and treatments are available for some diseases but not all and so the best way to keep as safe as possible is to use an insect repellent containing DEET, p-menthene-diol (PMD; extract of eucalyptus), picaridin/saltidin or IR3535 and reapply it regularly.”