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New push on to fight mosquito-borne illnesses
New push on to fight mosquito-borne illnesses

BOSTON – Gearing up for what’s expected to be another active summer for mosquito-borne illness in Massachusetts, a recently passed Senate bill looks to update the state’s approach to mosquito control.

The bill is based on legislation Gov. Charlie Baker filed in April and would give the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board new powers to fight mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile Virus and Eastern equine encephalitis when the Department of Public Health determines there is an elevated risk.

It would also create a task force to recommend reforms aimed at creating a “twenty-first century” approach to mosquito control, a measure not included in Baker’s original bill.

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.”

“Many cities and towns have not joined a mosquito control project,” Baker wrote. “In these parts of the Commonwealth, there is no entity — state, regional or local — that can engage in mosquito control. While a town by town approach does allow for maximum local input into mosquito control, unfortunately mosquitos and viruses do not respect borders.”

Baker said he filed the bill after the state last year “experienced unprecedented levels of EEE prevalence, illness, and deaths.” Public health officials reported 12 human cases of EEE in Massachusetts last year, and six people died from the virus.

EEE is a rare but potentially serious disease, and its activity is cyclical.

Massachusetts tends to experience two to three years of “intense activity,” including human cases, followed by a slower period, state public health veterinarian Dr. Catherine Brown said last August. Brown said particular swamps that Massachusetts has in high concentration make up “the exact right type of habitat to support the ecology that EEE occurs in.”

Last year’s EEE activity also indicated a geographic expansion beyond the typical clusters in Bristol and Plymouth counties, where such swamps are more prevalent.

“Last year was number one in a new cycle, and it spread to the Metrowest, it spread to Central Mass, it spread all the way west of Worcester, and the experts predict for this to continue to change with climate change,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in an interview. “And this was a warm winter … so the prediction is, this summer could be a very bad year for EEE, so we need to get ahead of it so we literally prevent deaths.”

Spilka said the bill “lays out a comprehensive strategy to combat mosquitoes spreading EEE” and will make sure the Department of Public Health is able to work with local communities.

The push to update mosquito control practices comes as the Department of Public Health is embroiled in efforts to stem the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts.

The Senate passed its bill (S 2757) on Thursday, sending it to the House for potential action.

Introducing the bill to his colleagues, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues described it as time-sensitive and said it would address the current “ineffective patchwork approach to airborne insects.”

Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, said the bill would require the mosquito control board to provide notice before conducting aerial spraying and would let cities and towns opt out of spraying, as long as they have an alternative mosquito management plan approved by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Baker in his filing letter and Rodrigues on the Senate floor both said that mosquitoes kill more people worldwide than any other animal.

Rodrigues said the bill’s provisions would sunset at the end of 2022, in recognition of the virus’ cyclical nature.