Our Opinion: EEE outbreak merits measured concern
Eastern equine encephalitis, commonly known as EEE, is a mosquito-borne virus which can be deadly. It has re-emerged in the state, which puts the Berkshires on alert.
A Tuesday article in the Boston Globe details the grueling and ultimately fatal eight-year battle of a Middleborough man infected with the virus. Jeff Fuller was a hearty and vigorous man, 43 when he was infected during the state's last big EEE outbreak in 2010-2012. After contracting the virus, he suffered from neurological ailments until his death in May.
Since early this month, four people in Massachusetts have been found to be infected with EEE, the first cases confirmed in the state since 2013. A Fairhaven woman died of the virus on Sunday. The Globe article quotes Catherine Brown, an epidemiologist for the Massachusetts Department of Health, saying the cases mark the beginning of a new and intense cycle of EEE activity likely to continue for up to three years.
Some 24 communities in Massachusetts have been designated as being of "critical" risk for EEE. Heath, about 25 miles east of North Adams, is the closest community to Berkshire County. According to the Globe article, residents in these critical-risk communities are urged to use caution and to "limit outdoor activities after sunset."
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 30 percent of people with EEE die. Early symptoms include headache, chills and joint and muscle pain.
The virus is spread when a mosquito bites an infected bird, then bites another mammal, which includes humans. The virus then targets the central nervous system, causing severe swelling of the brain. According to the CDC, between 2009 and 2018, Massachusetts had 10 cases of EEE, trailing Florida, which had 13. In the same time period, New York logged eight cases and Vermont two.
It's worth noting, as the Globe article states, that "even during an intense cycle, EEE infection is extremely rare." According to the CDC just 28 people in Massachusetts have been diagnosed with EEE since 2004. EEE has occasionally been found in Berkshire mosquitos in traps set by health authorities but The Eagle found no records of infections in local residents.
In addition to limiting — in critical risk areas — outdoor activities between dusk and dawn, those who have to be outside then should wear-long sleeves and use insect repellent. More information can be found on the state's website.
Numerous communities in the eastern part of the state have been conducting both ground and aerial mosquito prevention spraying. At an Eagle editorial board meeting last Friday, Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that increased mosquito activity is a sign of the impact of climate change. While spraying for mosquitoes is controversial — as it has been in Pittsfield — she said it must be done if state officials believe there is a serious health risk. Such spraying should be targeted as much as possible, she added.
When it comes to EEE, measured concern and vigilance are the order of the day here in Berkshire County, both at the individual and governmental level. More generally, the spread of such insect-borne diseases is yet another reason to battle climate change.
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