HARVARD — There have been four reported cases of Triple-E (Eastern Equine Encephalitis) virus reported in the region recently, one of which was in Westborough, Board of Health Chairman Tom Philippou told selectmen Tuesday night.
“West Nile is the other” mosquito-borne virus causing much buzz in these parts lately, he said. But of the two, Triple-E is the most deadly, with a 50-percent mortality rate.
Those diagnosed with the killer bug are not out of the woods even if they survive and often suffer lifelong consequences from the EEE virus, Philippou continued. “It’s very serious.” So is West Nile virus, but it’s less lethal.
“Our concern is that we don’t have hard data,” that participants in the Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project have available to determine where the suspect bugs are breeding and biting, he said.
It’s reasonable to assume the virus-spreading mosquitoes are in Harvard, too, he said, since mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus have been identified in several area communities, including Leominster and nearby Devens.
According to Philippou, conditions on the ground tell the story, even without a positive ID. “They (mosquitoes) thrive in red maple swamps, and we’re peppered with them,” he said.
Tracing the itinerary of the virus-carrying mosquitoes, Philippou said it started in southeastern Massachusetts a couple of years ago and spread north into the Connecticut River valley. Since then, the state has declared the situation critical. “We can now assume that diseased mosquitoes are all over the state,” he said.
In Harvard, the health board has been meeting with school officials and athletic coaches to determine the best means to protect students, Philippou said.
The process begins with spreading the word and taking common-sense precautions such as minimizing exposure to mosquitoes by avoiding outdoor activities dusk to dawn. and wearing long sleeves, long pants.
Besides protecting skin with clothing, insect repellent is recommended. Oil of eucalyptus is natural and effective, or use 30-percent DEET. Some might think a bug spray with 100-percent DEET is better but it just lasts longer, he explained.
Messages have been sent out to parents about measures being taken to keep kids safe, such as rescheduling after-school sports to avoid peak mosquito periods.
But Philippou was clearly pushing for more pro-active measures, such as joining the Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project, which collects data and systematically sprays to kill mosquitoes. He noted the town’s consistent no when asked about participating in the program and its “historic aversion” to spraying, a key project perk.
But that’s not all the Mosquito Control Project is about, he said and in fact the program provides “customized” services now. For example, thanks to GPS technology, they can target specific areas and avoid others. Thus, folks who want the spray can get it, even if their homes have long driveways, far from the road; those who don’t would be bypassed.
What’s needed now is a survey, Philippou said, to see if residents want to participate or not. “The takeaway is we should try to collect data to assess what people want,” he said.
If the town does nothing, the problem doesn’t simply go away, Philippou said. He warned that at some point, the state could declare an “emergency” and step in to spray areas of concern, with or without consent from the community.
Selectman Marie Sobalvarro noted the cost — $60,000 — and three-year sign-up period. “Can we ask for just monitoring,” without spraying? she asked.
Philippou seemed unsure about that, but if so, the cost might be the same, he said. And that wouldn’t be a very good deal.
Selectman Bill Johnson wanted to know if there were other options besides joining the project, maybe find an independent outfit that offers mosquito tracking and testing services. “Are they the only game in town?” he asked.
“As I understand it, yes,” Philippou said. “Could we contract on our own? Maybe.” But he wouldn’t recommend it, he said. Instead, he favors getting together with surrounding towns to come up with an action plan.
Selectman Ron Ricci ventured that early intervention such as improved drainage can also help keep mosquitoes at bay and out of town.
Philippou said that’s certainly true, and the program does that, too. “They don’t just spray,” he said.
Selectman Tim Clark said the “anecdotal” evidence Philippou cited was helpful but not scientific data, per se, and not enough to base a decision to join the program on.
Johnson agreed. “My sense is the town would want more than anecdotal data,” he said. “I’d like to do monitoring on our own, then we can decide what to do … it’s a huge step.”
“I agree it’s tough to make decisions” in a vacuum, Philippou responded, adding that the health board will try to track down some vendors that may offer monitoring services the selectmen are looking for.
Meantime, there’s information available on the town website that will help the public understand what the issue is and what precautions they can take against the virus. “I’d say the threat level is moderate to high,” he said.