In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, state lawmakers are preparing for the return of another potentially lethal disease: Eastern equine encephalitis.
In recognition of the likely occurrence of another round of EEE this summer and fall, the state Senate recently passed a law that would give the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board (SRMCB) the ity to deploy pesticides in mosquito breeding hotspots across the commonwealth.
Based on the bill Gov. Charlie Baker filed in April, the legislation would give the SRMCB new powers to fight mosquito-borne illnesses like Eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile Virus when the Department of Public Health determines there is an elevated risk.
In his filing letter, Baker wrote that the “current framework for mosquito control dates to the 1970s and does not allow for the sort of coordinated statewide efforts that are necessary to prevent and combat these viruses and the mosquitoes that carry them.”
The bill’s language allows the commissioner of public health to activate the SRMCB for aerial spraying of pesticides to kill mosquitoes if EEE re-emerges. Any spraying activity would first be publicized, and cities and towns would be able to opt out. The bill also creates a task force to study the state’s mosquito control efforts.
The Senate bill now moves to the House for further debate.
Last summer, Massachusetts saw its first EEE outbreak in almost a decade. Twelve Massachusetts residents were diagnosed with EEE, and three people died of the disease.
Last year’s EEE activity also saw a geographic expansion beyond the typical clusters in Bristol and Plymouth counties, where mosquito-breeding swamps are more prevalent.
When the outbreak peaked in late summer, the disease put 35 cities and towns in MetroWest and southeast Massachusetts at “critical” risk, while another 46 communities were rated at high risk and 122 others at moderate risk for the virus – more than half the state’s communities.
The EEE outbreak lasted well into the fall, necessitating the curtailing of outdoor activities, especially around dusk.
Triple E’s a rare but serious and potentially fatal disease that can affect people of all ages. It’s a virus spread by infected mosquitoes, one of a group of mosquito-transmitted viruses that can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).
Early symptoms include fever, chills, malaise, and myalgia. Abrupt encephalitis with severe headache and disorientation can follow, along with seizures and coma.
Mosquito spraying has already begun across much of Massachusetts. The most common pesticide used is Bti, a type of bacteria that destroys the larvae of mosquitoes, black flies, and fungus gnats. It’s not thought to be harmful to humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Last year, the state received just a glancing blow from EEE’s cousin, the West Nile virus. One case was found — a man in his 60s in Middlesex County — according to the Department of Public Health.
Like EEE, West Nile virus is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.
While it can infect people of all ages, people over 50 are at higher risk for severe disease. Most infected people don’t show symptoms, but they can include fever and flu-like illness.
We urge the House to move expeditiously on reconciliation with the Senate bill.
Massachusetts needs a coordinated spraying response to neutralize any EEE flare-ups.
Especially this summer, when everyone seeks refuge outdoors from COVID-19.