State warns mosquito-borne virus extends to western Franklin County

  • The state Department of Public Health announced Friday that five western Franklin County towns are at either critical or moderate risk of containing the rare, potentially fatal mosquito-borne virus Eastern Equine Encephalitis. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2019 9:04:10 PM
Modified: 8/23/2019 9:03:54 PM

For the first time in nurse Sheila Litchfield’s memory, the potentially fatal mosquito-borne virus Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) has spread to western Franklin County, with five towns declared at risk Friday by the state Department of Public Health (DPH).

Heath and Colrain are said to be at a “critical” risk while Rowe, Charlemont and Shelburne are at “moderate” risk. Critical communities are encouraged to cancel outdoor activities and stay inside to avoid getting bitten by a mosquito, while moderate towns are urged to take precautions to prevent bites like wearing repellant and covering up.

“This is the first one for me,” Litchfield, Rowe’s town nurse of 15 years, said of the state’s EEE warning.

The announcement came after a northern Franklin County man older than 60 was exposed to EEE, a DPH press release said. The case is the third in humans in Massachusetts this year. Two horses have also tested positive for the virus.

Regional public health workers are collaborating to warn residents about the virus, Litchfield said. Robotic calls and emails are being sent.

“It’s very important that people take their own precautions,” Litchfield said.

The symptoms of EEE, Litchfield said, include fevers of between 103 and 106 degrees, a stiff neck, headaches and fatigue. Ailments will appear about three to 10 days after a mosquito bite, she said. If these symptoms arise, Litchfield urged residents to see a doctor or go to an emergency room.

DPH issued a series of recommendations to avoid mosquito bites. Among them: apply repellant; be aware of peak mosquito hours (dusk to dawn); wear long sleeves, pants and socks; drain standing water; and install or repair screens.

Animal owners are urged to eliminate standing water from containers like buckets, tires and wading pools, regularly flush troughs, and keep horses in stalls at night, the release states. Owners are urged to speak to a veterinarian about repellents and vaccines for animals.

As the virus is more common in southeast and central Massachusetts, the state DPH and state Department of Agricultural Resources are set to begin aerial spraying in those regions Sunday to ward off mosquitoes. There are no plans to spray Franklin County yet.

Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel called the outbreak “the most intense level EEE activity that we have seen in several years.” Outbreaks occur every few years in Massachusetts, with the most recent occurring between 2010 and 2012, and the one before that in 2004 to 2006.

Statewide, 23 communities are at critical risk, 22 are at high risk and 52 are at moderate risk. The virus is fairly rare, though it is more common in Massachusetts than most states, typically concentrated in the southeast. Ten EEE cases were reported from 2009 to 2018 in Massachusetts, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The only state with more cases was Florida, with 13 reported between those years.

Bharel urged residents statewide “to remember that the peak time for transmission of mosquito-borne illness extends through September here in Massachusetts.”

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