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State stands by response to EEE

Raynham officials slam delay in aerial spraying

By David Abel and Christine Legere
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / September 7, 2011

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RAYNHAM - A day after an elderly Raynham man became the state’s first resident to die of Eastern equine encephalitis this year, state officials defended their decision to wait for evidence of the mosquito-borne disease rather than employ preemptive aerial spraying, as local officials have requested for years.

In a statement, Julia Hurley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, said the agency works with local boards of health, mosquito-control programs, and the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board to track disease-carrying mosquitoes throughout Massachusetts, especially in the southeastern part of the state, where the risk is the highest.

“Aerial application of pesticides is one tool that can be used in combination with ground spraying, the killing of mosquito larvae, and personal protective measures,’’ Hurley said. “Any decision to conduct aerial spraying is based on the level of risk in a given area, and this level is tied to a set of objective factors, including the number of EEE positive mosquito pools, the number of mammal-biting mosquitoes with EEE, whether there are isolated or multiple animal cases, and whether there are single or multiple human cases.’’

Last night, officials and residents gathered for a meeting of the Board of Selectmen, and many of them voiced their unhappiness with the department for its perceived lack of response to local pleas for aerial spraying.

Alan Perry, Raynham health agent, told selectmen he had put in a request for aerial spraying on Aug. 19, days before local resident Martin Newfield contracted EEE.

“My office, as of 7 p.m. tonight, has not received any confirmation of a death,’’ Perry said, noting that Newfield died Monday. The state released information that Raynham had a case of encephalitis on Friday.

Newfield, 80, a Raynham civic leader, former businessman, and football referee, died of EEE, nine days after first complaining of headaches and slight nausea, relatives said.

Before he retired, Newfield owned a local insurance agency, founded an oil-change business, and participated on local and regional boards. In 2003, he was named the town’s Citizen of the Year.

Wayne Andrews, Bristol County mosquito control superintendent, said his office was also not notified of Newfield’s death.

“We didn’t have a name or an address,’’ Andrews said. “Fortunately, the family called me so we could spray their yard. I got lucky, but it would have been nice to be told.’’

Andrews said the area mosquito control agencies can conduct only ground spraying. It is up to the state to do it from the sky.

“I’m a pro-spray person,’’ he said. “If you asked me when we should have had [planes] up, I would have said in May.’’

Selectmen last night instituted a 4 p.m. curfew for use of all town outdoor recreation areas. Pat Riley, Bridgewater-Raynham School Committee chairwoman, said district administrators in both towns will abide by that order and reschedule outdoor activities.

“It’s unfortunate the state couldn’t have been more proactive so we wouldn’t have to be reactive,’’ Riley said.

According to Hurley, aerial spraying is considered only after a region’s risk level is raised from “high’’ to “critical,’’ which has occurred in only two of the last six summers. The Raynham area remains at high risk.

The state last employed aerial spraying last summer, when the conditions were “considerably different,’’ Hurley said.

In 2010, she said, “The first EEE-carrying mosquitoes posing a threat to humans were detected in July - weeks earlier than this year - and multiple horses with EEE had been diagnosed, raising the risk level.

“Also, weather conditions in the first week of August 2010 were conducive to aerial spraying. This year, the first mammal-biting mosquito pools were not detected until Aug. 9, and to date no horses or other animals have been reported infected.’’

Raynham officials, however, said the state should be conducting aerial spraying routinely this time of year, given the regularity of the disease’s return.

“We ask for it every year, because we think it’s more effective than ground spraying,’’ said Joe Pacheco, selectmen chairman and the town’s Board of Health chairman. “This is not a new topic and shouldn’t have caught any of us off guard. If it did, someone was sleeping at the wheel.’’

He called the state’s response to the disease “not satisfactory,’’ arguing that officials should conduct aerial spraying in the area from the start of summer until the first frost.

“When we get a hurricane, the National Guard is out deploying sandbags,’’ he said. “It’s the same thing here.’’

He added: “We’re still hopeful that the state will reverse its course and authorize spraying.’’

Alfred DeMaria, an epidemiologist at the Department of Public Health, said there is no evidence that preemptive aerial spraying would help. He added that using planes to spread pesticides is much more expensive than ground spraying. He said it costs the state about $1 million each time it does aerial spraying.

“Why would you spend more money when it’s not effective in accomplishing your goal, which is to reduce your risk of EEE?’’ he said.

“Aerial spraying doesn’t cure the problem. It just removes adult mosquitoes, and you’re only buying time.’’

He said there are no health benefits to spraying from a plane compared with ground spraying from a truck. “They both use the same pesticide, which has low human toxicity,’’ he said.

Pacheco said last night that he contacted state Health Commissioner John Auerbach early yesterday and was told spraying couldn’t be done “because they had no budget for spraying.’’

Pacheco then complained to the governor’s office and to state Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat representing Raynham who is no relation to the chairman.

“The commissioner called me back and said if he declared a need to spray he could get the funds, so we’re continuing to support aerial spraying,’’ Joe Pacheco said.

Halifax resident Kimberly King, whose 5-year-old daughter died after being bitten by an infected mosquito in 2005, is now a commissioner for Plymouth County Mosquito Control.

“Unfortunately, the state has decided to cut our budgets and micromanage us,’’ King told Raynham officials yesterday. “It’s disheartening, as a mother and a commissioner.’’

Resident Gordon Luciano called Newfield “a mentor to me and someone who will be dearly missed.’’

“I’m angry about it because I think it could have been prevented if the state stepped up,’’ Luciano continued. “This isn’t the first year we’ve had a death. . . . If this happened in Milton, you think they wouldn’t spray?’’

According to Andrews, it may be too late for aerial spraying to knock down the mosquito population, due to meteorological conditions.

“You can’t have temperatures under 60, you can’t have winds, and you can’t have rains,’’ Andrews said. “You don’t want to put down a chemical and have it do nothing.’’

Infected mosquitoes spread EEE to humans through biting. Symptoms, which include high fever, confusion, headache, stiff neck, and lack of energy, can progress quickly and lead to swelling of the brain and death. Nearly half of all infections are fatal, while about 80 percent of survivors suffer significant neurological damage, the state’s top disease tracker told the Globe.

Newfield appeared to be the first person to die of EEE in Massachusetts since 2006. A 73-year-old Essex County man died of EEE in 2008 after being bitten by mosquitoes while in northern New England.

In her statement, Hurley said the Bristol County Mosquito Control Program has conducted ground-based pesticide spraying throughout Raynham more than 20 times since June, or at least once per week.

She said the state raised the EEE risk level in the Raynham area to “high’’ on Aug. 24 and suggested that towns in the area consider rescheduling outdoor afternoon and evening events.

Town officials issued a mosquito activity alert on Aug. 25, urging outdoor activities be curtailed a half-hour before dusk and after dawn.

“DPH and local boards of health have consistently advised personal mosquito protection measures throughout the summer, including using insect repellants, wearing long sleeves, long pants, and socks, and limiting outdoor activities during peak mosquito hours,’’ she said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @davabel. Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.