2012-10-04 / Front Page

Mosquito season worse than most in recent memory

Both West Nile and EEE found statewide this year
BY TIM RIEL

Barbara Szepatowski, a Jamestowner who volunteers for the town with animal-related matters, noticed an alarming trend last month. While driving around the island, she began to discern an unusual amount of dead birds along Jamestown’s streets, especially North Road and Southwest Avenue.

One by one, Szepatowski collected the corpses and disposed of them at the transfer station, counting the bodies along the way and marking them in her pad. After just four days, she had collected a total of 22 birds lying on the side of the roads.

Just by looking at the bodies, she concluded that the birds – which consisted of crows, mourning doves and one cardinal – weren’t victims of roadkill. They weren’t mangled or crushed. The only thing that came to mind was West Nile virus.

Szepatowski called Al Gettman, who is the main mosquito man in the state, with her theory. “We had a long conversation, and from what she told me, it certainly sounded like West Nile,” said Gettman, the mosquito abatement coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Management. “It’s very possible that the virus is in Jamestown. Actually, it’s more than possible, it’s probable.”

While the dead birds are most likely the cause of West Nile, no one can be sure where the birds were bit. Gettman said the virus first arrived in 2000, and many states started to concentrate on the particular species of birds that were dying: crows and blue jays. “The poor crows and blue jays,” he said. “They both suffered tremendously across the nation. Probably millions. Those species were highly susceptible to dying from West Nile.”

After about six years, Gettman and other state environmental offi cials across the country started to realize they were wasting their time. “It doesn’t tell us very much to pick up dead birds. Where you find a dead bird doesn’t tell you where it got bit.” He said it’s possible that the birds in Jamestown could have been bitten in Newport, and then flown over the East Passage to die.

According to Gettman, many people believe that the dead of summer is when mosquitos strike the worse. He refuted that belief, saying that infected mosquitos are more prominent heading into the fall.

“We have more virus isolations now than we had all summer,” he said. “These diseases build through the summer. It’s the most prevalent in late summer and early fall.”

Gettman does admit that the mosquito peak season is reaching its end, but says there is still a danger. “It’s nearing its end. They’re not reproducing. But this year still had a higher infection rate than the normal year, so it’s not time to totally relax.”

Szepatowski has only found five dead birds since the 22 she found in the four-day span.

Starting in June, and in each subsequent week, the DEM placed mosquito traps statewide. After trapping mosquitos, they are separated into pools and sent to a state Department of Health laboratory where they are tested for the two diseases.

In 2011, West Nile was isolated to two samples: one each in Providence and Tiverton. EEE was not detected last year.

This year, after the first three samples came back negative, West Nile was first discovered in Rhode Island from a mosquito caught on July 18 at Westerly’s Chapman Swamp. Soon after, a second mosquito tested positive for West Nile, this time from a trap set in the Smith Hill area of Providence.

More alarming, though, was when a sample on Aug. 6 tested positive for EEE, a much more dangerous disease than West Nile.

“With West Nile, there is a very low mortality rate,” said Gettman. “People who contract West Nile have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Most people get over it, and have no lasting problems. But EEE, that’s a different thing. As opposed to West Nile, it’s very rare, but has a very high human mortality rate. It’s strikes like lighting and has devastating consequences. About 50 percent of people who are infected with EEE will die or have permanent neurological damage.”

Since the first positive EEE test, the virus has been found two more times in Tiverton, as well as in Warren and Barrington. West Nile also struck hard this year. On Aug. 28, the Massachusetts health department confirmed that a Newport County man in his 50s was the first human case of West Nile in Rhode Island. Soon after, a man in his 20s from Providence County was diagnosed with West Nile, and then a week later a 60-something woman from Bristol County was diagnosed with meningitis resulting from a West Nile infection.

Finally, just last week, the Department of Health announced that a Washington County man was diagnosed with West Nile. With the multiple infections from all over the state, high schools began rescheduling games to the afternoon, since mosquitos are most active during sunrise and sundown.

“It is not unusual to see positive results for EEE and West Nile virus in mosquitoes in Rhode Island,” said Michael Fine, director of the Department of Health. “But these positive results remind us that it is important to protect ourselves and our children from mosquito-borne illnesses like EEE and West Nile virus, which can cause serious illness and even death.”

Early in September, a 70-yearold man from Worcester County in Massachusetts died from EEE. It was second case of EEE in Massachusetts in as many years – in 2011, a man from Raynham died. According to the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 147 of the reported 3,545 nationwide human cases of West Nile resulted in death this year.

“EEE is here to stay,” said Gettman. “It’s evolved here in North America. There’s a huge acreage of swampland that is home to a particular species of mosquito that regularly keeps EEE cycling in the environment. It’s not going anywhere.”

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