WHITING — If it’s August, then it’s time for the Eastern equine encephalitis virus.
On Aug. 22, the Vermont Department of Health reported that two batches of bird-biting mosquitoes collected on Aug. 19 in Whiting tested positive for the virus, known as EEE. It is the first detection of the EEE virus in the area this year, and the first in Vermont since it was found in mosquitoes from Grand Isle in the middle of June.
The detection of EEE in local mosquitoes has become a scary summer rite of passage in these parts, and with good reason. In August 2012, Scott Sgorbati of Sudbury and Richard Breen of Brandon both contracted EEE and died of the extremely rare virus. They were the first human EEE cases ever reported in Vermont.
“These detections confirm that both mosquito-borne viruses are circulating in Vermont again this year,” said Erica Berl, infectious disease epidemiologist for the Vermont Department of Health. “EEE can be a very serious disease and, although the risk of getting infected is low, it’s not zero. No matter where you live — enjoy the outdoors but take precautions to fight the bite.”
The virus is spread to humans and some animals through the bite of an infected mosquito. The state Agency of Agriculture did do aerial pesticide spraying over Brandon and Whiting in August 2013 after the EEE virus was detected in mosquitoes for the second straight year.
EEE is so rare that there have only been 300 documented cases in the U.S. over the last 50 years, and only a few cases are reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
No human or animal cases have been reported in Vermont so far this year, and no human cases have been reported since the tragic deaths of Sgorbati and Breen in 2012. A number of horses did test positive for EEE last summer.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Berl said that the increased funding in the 2014 state budget has improved testing 20-fold. The Legislature approved a $331,500 increase in the 2014 General Fund budget to fund arbovirus surveillance, a sharp increase from the original $140,000 budgeted, bringing the total funding for mosquito control and surveillance to $471,500, plus $25,000 in anticipated funding from the Vermont Department of Health.
That included an additional $175,000 in funding for local mosquito control districts, $89,500 for a vector coordinator to oversee specific areas of mosquito testing, and $144,000 for aerial spraying of adult mosquitoes should a public health risk be detected.
Berl said the team tested about 150 batches of mosquitoes in 2012, and more than 300 batches in 2013. This year, with more field technicians and better lab accessibility, Berl said more than 2,000 batches have been tested statewide so far this season.
“So far this year, the whole system has been running more smoothly,” she said, adding that mosquitoes in Whiting have been tested weekly all season.
Berl said that the cool evenings and reduced rainfall have kept the mosquito population down this summer. And it’s not just Vermont. Other New England states, as well as New York, have also just started reporting their first positive EEE tests of mosquitoes within the last week.
That said, the unpredictability of the virus and the need for self-protection is clear in news out of New Hampshire, where a Conway man has reportedly contracted EEE. It is the first human case in New Hampshire in five years.
As for the positive tests out of Whiting, Berl said it serves as a wake-up call for those who may have gotten complacent about self-protection against mosquitoes this summer.
“It’s a reminder that it’s still here,” she said. “And, luckily, it seems so far that activity is lower than in past years, but we can’t say there is no risk.”
With the positive test results for Eastern equine encephalitis virus in mosquitoes in Whiting, the Vermont Department of Health urges area residents to protect themselves against mosquito bites in the following ways:
• Limit your time outside from dusk to dawn when mosquitoes are most active and biting. When you do go outside take precautions to prevent mosquito bites.
• Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants outside when mosquitoes are active.
• Use insect repellents that are labeled as being effective against mosquitoes. Effective ingredients are DEET, picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. For more information about choosing a repellent, go to healthvermont.gov and search for “insect repellent.”
• Cover baby carriages or outdoor play spaces with mosquito netting.
• Install or repair screens on windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out.
• Reduce mosquito breeding habitats by getting rid of standing water and draining areas where water can pool, such as rain gutters, wading pools and old tires.
The Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets recommends that owners of West Nile virus- and EEE-susceptible species, including horses and camelids (llamas and alpacas), talk with their veterinarians about vaccinating their animals. West Nile virus and EEE can cause severe neurologic disease (incoordination, seizures and inability to stand) in horses and camelids and can result in high mortality rates in those species. Emus are susceptible to EEE and can be vaccinated with the equine vaccine.??For extensive information about EEE and West Nile virus and mosquito pool and veterinary testing results visit healthvermont.gov.