By Marjorie Nesin
---- — ESSEX — State officials have raised the threat of the mosquito-borne illness Eastern equine encephalitis in the town of Essex from “moderate” to “critical,” skipping past “high.”
The change in threat level Tuesday came after an Essex horse was diagnosed with Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) last week and confirmed late Monday by state officials. The “critical” threat level signifies that multiple cases of EEE in people could be extremely likely at the time, according to the state Department of Health.
The state sets an area’s risk level at “critical” when there has been at least one human or animal case of disease or rapid escalation of indications in the area during the year.
The Essex horse, boarding at a veterinarian’s stable in New Hampshire since growing ill, will likely recover from the mosquito-borne disease, according to Essex health board’s administrative assistant Ann White.
“It’s expected to survive, so that’s pretty amazing,” White said. “That’s very unusual.”
The Essex horse is the fifth horse in the state to suffer the illness, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. Since the disease is transferable only through mosquito bites, people and other animals cannot catch Eastern Equine Encephalitis from the infected horse.
However, cases of horse infections can act as an indicator for the possibility of human infection.
Approximately one third of humans who develop EEE die, according to a prepared statement from the Essex health board. Others may have mild to severe permanent neurological damage.
Initial symptoms of the illness typically include fever, alterations in level of consciousness, fatigue, confusion, seizures and sometimes a headache and stiff neck.
Seven humans have been diagnosed with EEE in Massachusetts, and, as of Thursday, 20 people had been diagnosed with West Nile Virus, another mosquito-borne illness, according to the state.
While nearby Hamilton joined Essex in shifting up to the “critical” ranking, other area communities, including Gloucester, Manchester, Ipswich, Topsfield, and Wenham, have seen their threat levels raised from “moderate” to “high.” Rockport remains listed at a “moderate” risk level, the lowest level of threat currently in the state.
The state Department of Health Department urges communities designated as “high” or “critical” cancel outdoor activities in the evening until the first hard-ground frost. All of the Cape Ann towns and cities have issued a ban on organized outdoor activities after 5 p.m., while Hamilton and Wenham followed suit Tuesday.
In a prepared statement issued Tuesday, Manchester health officials wrote that “for the protection of local residents it is best to ban all outdoor organized activities in the town of Manchester during peak mosquito hours.”
As another precaution, Manchester performed another round of ground spraying Monday from School Street to the Essex town line to kill adult mosquitoes. The preventative spraying will begin at 6:30 p.m., weather permitting.
Local and state health officials are urging residents in all Massachusetts communities to protect themselves by making sure all window and door screens are in good repair, by removing any standing water from their property and encouraging neighbors to do the same, and by avoiding areas of obvious mosquito activity.
Officials also urge people to use mosquito repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when outside especially at peek hours between dawn and dusk, and use mosquito netting on baby carriages.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.