Friday, May 24, 2013
With the deaths last week of one Massachusetts man from West Nile virus and another from Eastern equine encephalitis, concern about mosquito-borne illnesses has spiked anew throughout New England.
Health officials in Massachusetts also have confirmed three new West Nile cases in women; two from the Boston area and one from Middlesex County, which has had the most cases. All are recovering.
In total, there have been 13 cases of West Nile this year in the Bay State, up from six last year, and two of EEE, one of which officials believe may have been contracted outside the commonwealth.
In Maine, no person has been infected this summer by either EEE or West Nile virus, but the steady spread northward of the two diseases has sparked renewed concern -- and, in some cases, fear. It has been expressed in various ways, from the use of pesticide spraying to changing ordinary routines of spending time outdoors.
In Maine, the focus has been on West Nile virus, though of the two diseases, EEE is the far more virulent and serious, public health officials say. In fact, EEE is quite often fatal, while many people infected by West Nile will never become ill or be aware they were exposed to the virus.
Even so, recent fatalities in neighboring states and reports of West Nile being found in Maine in mosquito-surveillance pools in Lebanon and Standish have heightened awareness, and with it, alarm. Officials in the MSAD 60 regional school district, which includes Lebanon, decided in late August to have the margins of two elementary school properties sprayed to create a buffer zone to protect returning students and community residents using playgrounds and athletic fields.
Such responses have led some homeowners to seek advice from professional pesticide-application companies about whether spraying would be appropriate in their yards. The number of calls from individual homeowners began to pick up after the Lebanon school spraying, said Ted St. Amand, owner of Atlantic Pest Solutions in Arundel.
Anxieties only rose further when the virus was found in a blood sample from a Pennsylvania woman who had been infected in her home state but sickened by the virus while visiting Maine.
St. Amand, whose company handled the spraying of the Lebanon school properties, said no other school districts had inquired about spraying, but private individuals were calling more frequently. His company does not automatically recommend the use of pesticides, he said, but instead thoroughly assesses the likely level of risk and what methods of prevention or protection might be most appropriate for a family or neighborhood.
But the calls alone have demonstrated that people are nervous about the situation, he said, and worried about what might happen before a hard frost quells the mosquito population in the fall.
Many state officials have consistently advised that residents limit their exposure to mosquitoes rather than apply broad-spectrum pesticides, which do not simply target mosquitoes but indiscriminately kill all insects in a spray zone.
Several entomologists -- including the head of the Maine Entomological Society -- have said specifically that pesticide use is unwise and dangerous, particularly in light of the stresses on other declining insect populations, including pollinating bees, important to agriculture. James Dill of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, in contrast, has advocated at least limited spraying as an effective preventive measure.
But about one thing there's no debate: There's something about West Nile virus that has people on edge.
Whatever that is, it isn't entirely irrational, public health officials say. Though it is by no means the nation's leading public health threat, this year has brought a significant uptick in reported cases, to more than 1,100 by the end of last week. Most of the illness, which was first discovered in the U.S. in 1999, has occurred in the South, much of it concentrated in Texas and Lousiana. Eighty-seven people have died.
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