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.

And there is something about its seemingly inexorable spread that scares people. Google “West Nile virus 2012” and what comes up is a jigsaw of states with active cases, or deaths: Texas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, Washington, Georgia, California, Michigan, Indiana and more.

Part of the worry has to do with the continuing — some would say, unrelenting — media coverage of every single development in the story of the virus and its victims. It almost seems like “a feeding frenzy of some kind,” said Maine state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears, who has been busy for weeks dealing with the daily business of West Nile, EEE and infectious other diseases, while also fielding countless media calls.

“I’m not blaming the press,” Sears said, but the accretion of coverage can leave “the impression of (the virus) being overwhelming. If we add to that EEE” — and people see disease statistics mounting and the death count climbing — “how do we make (the) message clear” that it is important to stay informed but not be afraid?

It becomes all the more difficult because, in fact, this has been “one of the more significant years” for these viruses, said Sears. “It’s of concern” in Maine, “because we have all these potentials” that could mushroom into real problems, Sears said.

“Sooner or later someone will get exposed and will get sick,” he said. “It appears immediate (but) without specific reason.”

People become even more apprehensive because West Nile “strikes sort of out of the blue,” Sears said. And EEE seems to attack “absolutely out of the blue” — and ferociously.

“Why does it happen to one person and not another?” Sears said. “What’s the trigger? There’s no science on that. It’s a range of things.”

But it is precisely that seemingly random nature of the virus that contributes to making it more frightening than other illnesses and creates a public information nightmare for health officials. People often confuse the West Nile and EEE, said Sears, because both are inflicted through bites from infected mosquitoes.

Part of it, too, said Joanna Torow, chief educator at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, lies in “the name of it being so exotic.” People hear “West Nile virus,” she said, and it triggers an subconscious xenophobia — an unreasonable fear of foreigners or strangers viewed as outsiders, or of their way of life. They think of “this thing that’s coming from Africa,” she said. It taps into irrational fears and misinformation about other deadly diseases — like ebola or AIDS — that emerged in that part of the world.

However, many diseases that carry tags with names of particular places do not reflect where the disease may predominate or even originate, Sears pointed out. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, for example, is a disease of unknown origin but is concentrated in North Carolina, not in the West.

But, with West Nile, the name alone gives “some cache to it … an exotic nature,” he conceded.

“It’s very exotic; it sounds a little scary,” Torow said. And for many people, “the more they hear about it, the more aware they are and the more they think about it.

“We want to be cautious not to overreact,” said Torow, who heads up the state’s annual Bug-MAINE-ia celebration, a one-day event to acquaint school-age children to the wonders of the insect world. Now in its 10th year, Bug-MAINE-ia attracts nearly 2,000 students to Augusta, for a message that’s “just the opposite” of the upsetting news many people are hearing these days. The event teaches that when it comes to insects, “some are creepy and some are really beautiful.”

It’s not as hard a sell as you might think in these days of mosquito-borne disease, said Torow, who was introduced to the insect world by way of art. Studying these creatures, she marveled at the way their bodies are constructed and how form and function correspond with such intricacy and beauty.

“There’s a lot of good bugs” that need to be preserved, she said, adding that often “adults seem more uncomfortable” than children about insects and have “a more fixed attitude” about keeping them at a distance.

But, here again, facts might help soothe the fear. Even with West Nile and EEE, the odds are against contracting the disease, Sears said.

“There are 45 different species of mosquitoes. Only five or six are associated with these diseases,” he said.

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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