State officials to Whiting-area residents: Please take EEE tests

WHITING — State health officials hope to conduct blood tests on area residents and determine how many people may possess the Eastern equine encephalitis antibodies without ever having gotten sick. That’s the message from a series of three public information meetings they held in the area to update residents in the wake of the first two human cases of EEE over the summer.
Depending on funding, there is also a plan to expand mosquito surveillance next year and hire additional field assistants to help gather samples.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen facilitated the Nov. 15 meeting attended by over 50 residents at the Whiting Town Hall. Meetings were also held on Nov. 28 at Otter Valley Union High School and Nov. 29 at the Sudbury Town Hall.
The panel of officials in Whiting included Chen, Agency of Agriculture Plant Pathologist Tim Schmaltz, Ag entomologist Alan Graham, Department of Health epidemiologist Erica Berl, and state epidemiologist Dr. Patsy Kelso.
The EEE virus is carried by a certain type of mosquito, the Culicera Melanura, found in hardwood swamps. Over the past three years, it has been increasingly found in the state’s deer and moose populations. In 2011, it was responsible for the deaths of 17 emus on a farm in Brandon. Tragically, the first two human cases of EEE in Vermont developed in this area last August. Scott Sgorbati, 47, of Sudbury was the first to contract the mosquito-borne disease in late July, followed by Richard Breen, 87, of Brandon. Both men died from the disease, sending shockwaves throughout the region and the state.
Chen said that the human blood testing that the state wants to do on residents of Whiting, Sudbury and Brandon is similar to the deer sampling that the state has been doing over the last few years. He added that the Centers for Disease Control has agreed to do the testing on the samples, which he said could be collected from volunteers age 12 and older as soon as Town Meeting Day in March.
“Town meeting would be a great time,” Chen said.
Volunteers would provide a blood sample and fill out a questionnaire. No one would be provided with individual results, Berl said. The goal of the study is to find out the percentage of the population with the antibody versus those without.
Berl said the only other study like this that has ever been done occurred the 1960s following an EEE outbreak in New Jersey.
Kelso said the goal would be to get 200-300 volunteers from each of the affected towns.
“We could really learn a ton from this about how many people have the EEE antibody and never got sick,” she said.
“So, stay tuned,” Berl added. “We are working on this and we hope to have a good turnout.”
During the question-and-answer period, the Reporter asked about the status of a lab currently being built in Colchester. Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Sudbury, has said that he has been talking to state officials and has been assured that the lab will be used to do mosquito testing for EEE and West Nile virus. There is no suitable facility in Vermont to conduct those tests, which are currently sent to a lab in New York state.
Chen confirmed that the lab being built in Colchester will be used for EEE testing.
“We will have the capacity here and we plan to propose buying the machine we need and to train agriculture and health officials to run the testing this summer,” Chen said. “We will ask for funding (during the coming legislative session).”
Chen also said he is having ongoing discussions with Shaw and other local legislators as the Addison and Rutland delegations gear up for the session. In October, legislators and state health and agriculture officials met at the Brandon Town Hall to chart a course for legislative action on statewide mosquito surveillance.
At the height of the EEE fears in September, officials from the Department of Health and the Agency of Agriculture made the difficult decision to do aerial pesticide spraying over specific areas of Brandon and Whiting in an effort to lessen the public health risk. There was animated discussion at the Whiting meeting about future spraying and the possibility of opting out. Chen said that after the aerial spraying, officials followed up with local hospitals, veterinarians and farmers.
“We did not see any evidence of any ill effects,” Chen said. “We tested fish and bees and did not see any ill effects.”
That said, Chen and Berl reiterated that they took the decision to spray very seriously.
“If you let too many people opt out of spraying, it won’t be effective,” Berl said. “We don’t want to spray if we don’t have to. The risk to people is extremely low.”
Chen agreed, saying that the warnings to stay indoors and cover vegetables during spraying were precautionary until officials knew what the effects would be afterward. He added that it is his job to protect the public health, however, and that aerial spraying will continue to be a possibility as long as EEE remains a threat.
“(Spraying) is certainly not a win-win for us, but it’s something we felt we had to do,” Chen said. “I would love to never spray again, but I tell you now — if I perceive another major public health threat, we will have this discussion again.”
Another, broader subject to arise at the meeting was the question of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s buying farmland and converting it back to wetland in recent years and how that contributes to the mosquito population. Farmer Paul Quesnel, who is also the Whiting Road Commissioner, said he believes that practice is just making better mosquito habitat.
“They’re just adding fuel to the fire,” he said.
But Graham reminded Quesnel that the mosquito that carries EEE is not present in the marshes of reverted cropland, but in hardwood swamps that were never farmed.
Regardless, Quesnel said it’s an issue all over the area, as farmers battle higher water levels and more farmland is taken out of production.
Graham countered that areas like Leicester Junction, which was notoriously one of the most mosquito-ridden areas of the state, have benefitted from a change in recent years in water levels.
“Now when there are floods, we don’t treat for mosquitoes,” he said, adding that he is seeing fish and other species in the water there he hasn’t seen in years.
Ultimately, Graham and the other officials at the Whiting meeting said the future of the EEE virus in this area is uncertain, since no one knows where the virus goes in the winter, and next summer there is no guarantee the virus will be back. Either way, the state wants to be prepared, and Berl said that based on all of the data collected thus far, this area will start off the next mosquito season at “moderate risk” for EEE and West Nile virus.
“Next year, we could have horrendous mosquitoes, but if we don’t find the virus, we won’t do anything differently,” Berl said. “We don’t know if we’ll find no virus or all kinds of virus, and I wouldn’t put money on it.” 

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