Last night the Dukes County Commissioners were expected to authorize spot-testing mosquitoes in all six Island towns for eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), according to county manager Russell Smith. There has never been a case of EEE reported on the Vineyard, but the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) announced at the end of July that the risk has increased in a large part of Southeastern Massachusetts.
EEE kills horses and is a serious disease in humans of all ages, sometimes resulting in death. Mosquitoes have recently tested positive for EEE in nearby mainland communities such as Lakeville and Carver. In Middleborough, a four-year-old horse died of EEE. The young stallion developed symptoms on July 20, deteriorated very rapidly, and was euthanized on July 21, according to the DPH. In recent weeks the television news has been full of images of airplanes and trucks spraying areas where mosquitoes breed, and outdoor activities near dusk, such as picnics and softball games, have been canceled.
According to T.J. Hegarty, director of the county’s Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), there has been no mosquito testing program on the Vineyard this summer.
However, there was such a program here in FY09, set up and run by Mr. Hegarty. The state provided the equipment, provided shipping of specimens, and did the testing at no charge to the county or the towns.
According to Mr. Smith, the program was established on a trial basis, but was abandoned last year because Mr. Hegarty, a full-time county employee, did not have time to collect the specimens, in addition to his regular pest management duties. The work took about 10 hours per week, Mr. Hegarty told The Times, on top of his regular working hours. The county decided that paying overtime wages was not justified, according to Mr. Smith.
Mr. Hegarty has confirmed that the state will continue to fund trapping supplies, shipping, and lab work, as before. Mr. Smith told The Times in a telephone interview that he expected that at last night’s meeting, the commissioners would approve limited spot checks in response to the DPH warnings and the current media attention paid to EEE.
The testing also turns up mosquitoes infected with West Nile virus (WNV), far less dangerous than EEE but still a risk for the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. For a time, the state was collecting dead birds (especially crows, who seemed to be more susceptible) to test for WNV, but that program has been discontinued.
What about next year?
Officials The Times talked with agreed that mosquito testing is a good idea, primarily as a matter of public safety, but also to reassure residents and tourists that the Vineyard continues to be free of mosquitoes infected with EEE and WNV.
West Tisbury health agent John Powers commented, “If we could do something as relatively simple as monitoring mosquito populations, it would be terrific.”
Mr. Hegarty agreed, but he cautioned that the problem is paying for it. “It’s all about the money, how you compensate the person doing the work,” he said.
Mr. Smith told The Times that he is already including mosquito testing in his plans for next year. He suggests two ways that the county might pay for it: hire a part-time mosquito collector or re-prioritize the work Mr. Hagerty does so as to make the mosquito work part of his regular job description.
In the last round of annual town meetings, taxpayers agreed to pick up 70 percent of the cost to operate the county’s one-man IPM Program in fiscal year 2011, at a cost of $76,641, minus anticipated income of $25,000.
The county pest control service covers insects, rats, mice, moles, and voles and provides no-cost education and consultation on bats and mammals such as skunks and raccoons, but it does not offer eradication service for those animals. Mr. Hegarty, who is licensed to trap and dispose of raccoons and skunks, provides those services privately.
Asked if with some training, emptying the traps and shipping the mosquitoes could be done by a volunteer, such as a senior citizen or a high school science student, Mr. Smith thought volunteers would be worth considering. Mr. Hegarty thought there might be liability issues. “What if a volunteer got bitten by an infected mosquito?” he asked.
In the meantime
Sam R. Telford of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, who specializes in infectious diseases, told The Times in an email:
“Given the EEE and WNV activity in mosquitoes across Buzzards Bay, it would be prudent to reinforce the message that common sense precautions be undertaken. Typically Martha’s Vineyard is very low risk for WNV and there has never been a EEE case from Martha’s Vineyard. But this year has seen unprecedented activity and potential risk for EEE on the mainland…. and we can no longer predict where the virus is going to be found. If people are going to be engaging in outdoor activity, they should take simple precautions. Use repellent. DEET products are safe regardless of what is out in the lay literature. There is a new product, picaridin, which seems even safer and effective. Permethrin-treated clothing will also help. There is no evidence that other popular things like ‘Skin So Soft’ work. Limit outdoor activity after dusk. These personal protective measures will also work to reduce risks from whatever ticks that are still around.”
Information about West Nile Virus (WNV) and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) is available by calling the Massachusetts Department of Public Health information line at 1-866-MASS-WNV (1-866-627-7968), or the Epidemiology Program at 617-983-6800.