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Officials fighting virus threats

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / August 26, 2012
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Outdoor activities, from youth sports to neighborhood barbecues, are suffering in Westborough because mosquitoes carrying Eastern equine encephalitis are in town.

About a week ago, Westborough was designated “high risk,” which means the state’s Department of Public Health considers the community “very likely” to see multiple cases of the disease in humans.

“It is scary to think that by playing a game you could pick up this virus,” said Robert F. Fitzgibbon, a Westborough native and president of the Nashoba Valley Youth Soccer League .

Officials from the town’s school district, Recreation Department, and Board of Health are working together to ensure that local organizations follow state guidelines to curtail outdoor activities between dusk and dawn, said Paul McNulty, Westborough’s director of public health.  

For Westborough, a place where EEE-infected mosquitoes have been identified in September in previous years, this summer’s early appearance does not bode well, McNulty said.

“We have a lot of hot weather to come, and that is not good,” he said.

The Board of Health is telling residents to limit their outdoor activities after sunset, in a warning that extends beyond organized activities at parks and athletic fields. A person walking the family dog at 10:30 p.m. is also taking a risk, McNulty said.

Frank DeSiata, Westborough’s recreation director, has plastered town parks and fields with laminated fluorescent-green signs, warning people to avoid using the areas during peak mosquito hours.

“We’re letting everyone know this is not a case of ‘Ehhh, do what you want, no big deal.’ We don’t want to panic anyone but this is something people need to take very seriously,” he said.

The locus of human-biting mosquitoes infected with EEE is south of Boston, where towns are also taking strong measures to protect citizens from the bugs. Public alerts are everywhere, and some towns are instituting curfews.

The EEE danger west of Boston has developed more recently. In July, EEE was found in bird-biting mosquitoes in Sudbury, Westborough, and Shrewsbury. But it was not until this month that EEE was identified in mammal-biting mosquitoes in Reading and, most recently, in Westborough.

Meanwhile, another mosquito-borne disease that can cause illness in humans, the West Nile virus, has been found in mosquito populations in communities across the area, including Arlington, Framingham, Newton, Sudbury, Wayland, and Westford. 

While the flu-like symptoms caused by the West Nile virus range from mild to severe, Eastern equine encephalitis causes brain swelling that results in death in a third of all cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. West Nile virus affected six people in Massachusetts last year, all of whom survived. Last summer there were two reported EEE cases, one of which resulted in the death of a Raynham resident.

On Aug. 7, the state health agency announced that a Middlesex County man in his 60s had been diagnosed with EEE, the first human case of a mosquito-borne virus this season. Officials said it was unclear where the man, who was not identified in the announcement, contracted the virus, since he had been traveling in the mid-Atlantic region.

To reduce the mosquito population, the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project sprayed Westborough on Monday. Meanwhile, residents are taking precautions.

Leaders of the town’s youth sports programs are taking preventive steps to limit the health risks for participants, DeSiata said. Coaches will be erring on the side of safety, he said, based on his recent discussions with representatives from baseball, soccer, and football leagues.

Rob Nagi, vice president of Westborough Little League & Softball, said his 120 players, ages 8 to 12, will have their games shortened by half, and all weeknight practices canceled.

“It is kind of scary. We’re nervous about EEE as residents and as people who run youth organizations,” Nagi said.

He said parents are not upset by the program’s reduced schedule. “I’d be hard-pressed to find a parent who wants to have their child out there for games at night under the lights,” Nagi said.

Jack Good, president of Westborough Youth Football & Cheer, said his coaches have started using an air horn to get young people off the football field before sunset. The policy is cutting 30 minutes of practice, an amount that will increase as dusk arrives earlier.

“We want to clear the fields. We want parents to get their kids in the car and go home. It just is not worth taking the risk,” he said.

About 150 young people are registered in either football or cheerleading, he said.

Fitzgibbon, with the town’s youth soccer league, said evening practices will end 30 to 45 minutes earlier this fall for the program’s 750 players, ages 4 to 18. Soccer coaches, along with their colleagues in baseball and football, will carry insect repellent for players.

“This situation is challenging,” he said. “We put the safety of coaches and players first. We would never put people at risk for the sake of a game. I just hope we are successful in getting people off the fields at a safe time.’’

At barbecues in Westborough, people are telling their children to stop playing hide-and-seek after dusk. They are whisking them inside to watch television, said Good, the youth football official.

“It’s scary,” he said. “You really need to take this seriously. I’ve never felt like this before about a mosquito. Now I’m all eyes, every time I see one.”

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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