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Take precautions against mosquitoes

Historically seen here just as pesky annoyances, mosquitoes have carried a greater threat since last September when a girl under the age of 18 from the North Quabbin region contracted Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus.

It was the first human case in Franklin County in recent memory (two emus died of the virus in 2005). And while local and state health officials don’t believe that last year’s case will mean a wave of local virus contractions this year, they’re still urging people to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites.

EEE, a rare bird virus spread to mammals through infected mosquitoes, has no known human treatment and often results in death or permanent disabilities. There is also the threat of West Nile virus, which is just slightly more common and less deadly than EEE.

“The most important message we can send is personal due diligence,” said Nicole Zabko, director of public health for Greenfield. “If you, or your kids or your family are going to be outside during the dawn/dusk hours (or) if you’re going to be in the woods, you really have to apply mosquito repellent and/or wear protective clothing.”

Wearing long clothes in shaded areas or at night or applying insect repellent with the chemical DEET are easy actions to prevent mosquito bites, say officials. It’s also key to look for potential breeding grounds around the home — any container that holds water, from a small tin can to a large chemical-less vacant swimming pool, could become a home for mosquito larvae.

Massachusetts usually has some level of threat from the viruses each year, but it is typically in cedar swamp habitats found in the southeastern part of the state. Statewide, 2012 was the worst in recent memory: there were 33 human cases of West Nile virus and seven human cases of EEE, including at least two deaths.

Last year’s human EEE case in the North Quabbin, though, means that Orange and Athol automatically have a “moderate” risk for EEE this year. Threat levels change as mosquito, animal and human samples are collected throughout the state during the summer and fall.

And while local officials looked into setting up a mosquito control and surveillance center (a Pittsfield-based center is the only one west of Worcester), they ultimately found it to be too costly. Plus, they said even if a mosquito was found with EEE, the response wouldn’t be that different than it is now: local health officials would urge people to take precautions.

Still, they want people to be aware of the threat. Gina McNeely, co-chair of the Mohawk Area Public Health Coalition and Montague health director, said that the EEE virus typically is accompanied by an “agonizing illness and death.”

“It’s sort of like rabies in a way. It’s not all that common but it’s usually deadly,” she said.

Symptoms — which include a fever of 103 to 106 degrees, headaches, stiff neck and reduced energy — kick in between three and 10 days after an infected mosquito bite. Individuals with the virus may go into a coma within the first week, according to state officials.

Zabko said that local boards of health can appeal to the state’s department of public health for further actions, like chemical spraying, but it has never even come close to getting to that point in Franklin County.

“I think if we have the proven test results, the proven data, to show that we are experiencing a severe issue out here with West Nile Virus and EEE, I can’t imagine that the towns wouldn’t rally up together and form a program,” she said.

The human EEE case last September led towns and schools to cancel evening athletic practices and games. Recess periods and physical education classes were moved inside. The Quabbin Reservoir adjusted its daily hours to close earlier in the afternoon.

So far this year there has only been one confirmed mosquito in Plymouth County that has contracted West Nile virus and there are no EEE cases. The viruses historically appear in late summer, but were discovered as early as July last year.

There is almost no hope of recovery in animals that contract the virus, state officials said, and most are put down right away. But unlike humans, animals can be vaccinated for both EEE and West Nile. It’s something that is routinely done throughout the typical horse’s life, beginning at four months of age, veterinarian Robert Schmitt told The Recorder last fall.

The state posts information about the viruses, including regular updates on confirmed cases of the virus, on its website: www.mass.gov/dph/mosquito.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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