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Rare, But Potentially Deadly, Mosquito Disease Changes Life In Massachusetts


Communities from Michigan to Massachusetts face a heightened risk of Triple E virus. It's a rare but potentially deadly mosquito-borne illness. Officials say this is one of the worst years for Triple E and that cases are both more widespread and numerous than in recent years. NPR's Angus Chen reports on how threats of the disease are affecting life in Massachusetts.

ANGUS CHEN, BYLINE: Since Fairhaven, Mass'., risk for Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus became high and a local woman died after contracting it last month, Mark LaFreniere says he's not taking any chances.

MARK LAFRENIERE: You never think it's going to happen. And then when someone that lives a few streets over from you passes away from it, it's like, oh; start spraying everything.

CHEN: He always sprays himself and his dog with mosquito repellent before going on walks, and he stopped walking outside at nighttime or sunset to avoid getting bit. Mosquitoes pick up the virus, also known as Triple E, from birds. Then they can transmit it to people or, as you might guess from the name, horses. Usually, they're the first ones to get sick and trigger towns to go on high alert for the illness. That's what happened in Holliston, Mass., where one of Nancy Dubin's horses caught the virus in late August.

NANCY DUBIN: His name was Bruin.

CHEN: Dubin is a horse farmer in Holliston. There's no human vaccine available, but there is one for horses that she uses every year. But Bruin, being a very young horse, got sick anyway.

DUBIN: He was walking into walls and stuff, so it was definitely affecting his brain.

CHEN: And he died. Triple E infects the central nervous system and can cause severe brain damage. It's a very rare disease, but it kills about a third of people who become seriously ill. So far, at least 27 people have contracted Triple E this year and six have passed away. It's a particularly high number of cases, says Mark Fisher, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MARK FISHER: There are a number of factors that contribute to that. That includes changes in birds and mosquito populations that transmit the viruses.

CHEN: States reporting cases include Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan, Connecticut and New Jersey. In some states, cases are appearing in places where officials don't normally expect to see Triple E. Catherine Brown is the state epidemiologist for Massachusetts.

CATHERINE BROWN: Working with a community that's dealing with it for the first time, that is unusual. But also, it has been very challenging.

CHEN: There are fewer mosquito control resources in these communities, and residents aren't used to rescheduling events to avoid being outside between sundown to sunrise, as Triple E guidelines recommend. Meghan Siegel lives in Sherborn, Mass. She says her family started taking the guidelines more seriously after hearing about the people and horses who got sick.

MEGHAN SIEGEL: Since then, we've kind of reined in our sunset level activities.

CHEN: She's the coach for her daughter's fourth grade soccer team. She says thinking about whether to reschedule or cancel outdoor practices has taken a lot of energy, too.

SIEGEL: I just think about the family just north of us who had a child who contracted it, and the child's in critical condition. And so it is my call if we have practice or not. It's a decision that I think about, you know, two or three times a week. And it's a lot.

CHEN: But there's a light breeze today, and the fields are dry. Mosquito control projects have also been spraying insecticide from planes this week. And Siegel says everyone always uses mosquito repellent now.

SIEGEL: Lots of empty cans of it laying around, but it's kind of what we have to do, I think.

CHEN: Those are enough precautions to allow practice to go on, she says. But it stops at 6 p.m, as does any outdoor play for her own kids close to sunset, though hopefully not for much longer. Massachusetts epidemiologist Catherine Brown says the risk for Triple E, already very low, is waning as winter comes. The mosquitoes are dying off.

For NPR News, I'm Angus Chen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW DEAR'S "MODAFINIL BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Angus Chen