Friday night football under the lights has been put on hold in Athol. A cemetery tour was canceled in Shrewsbury. Families in Brockton are donning long sleeves and pants and applying mosquito repellant liberally.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” said Erik Larson, the president of the Shrewsbury Historical Society, which canceled its ‘Walk Though History Cemetery Tour’ that was scheduled for Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
More than a dozen communities, from Royalston to Raynham, are under critical alert for the mosquito-borne Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The advisory, color-coded red, states “multiple cases of human disease are extremely likely at this time.”
An Athol girl recently became the third person in Massachusetts to contract EEE this year, prompting town officials to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday.
“Our community acted quick and swiftly, we held a meeting first thing in the morning to get information out, so we wouldn’t have a mass panic situation,” said Joan Hamlett, the chair of the Athol Board of Health. “You hear about EEE but when it hits your own backyard, it becomes very real.”
The last time the town was at high risk was 2008.
David King, the athletic director at Athol High School, said roughly a dozen games have been rescheduled due to the EEE threat. All games or matches are required to be over by 6:30 p.m.
“I think the biggest impact to the athletes is that they are disappointed they can’t play in the nighttime atmosphere,” King said. “The time change means that not as many parents and fans will be able to see the games and cheer, and that takes a bit of the excitement away.”
Town officials are monitoring the weather, looking for a dip in the temperature that would kill off the current mosquito population.
“Doesn’t look like we’re due for hard frost until late October, but this is New England and that can change,” Hamlett said.
White Cedar and Red Maple swamps are the principal “vector” of the EEE virus, said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, a disease specialist with the state’s Department of Public Health. The highest concentrations of those mosquito habitats are in Plymouth and Bristol counties. “But we’re also seeing it in Central and Western Massachusetts as well, and those areas have never been significantly associated with it,” he said.
More than 6,000 collections containing about 50 mosquitoes each have been tested so far this year, with as many as 300 of those collections testing positive for EEE, DeMaria said.
There have been two other confirmed cases of human infection in the state, and officials have not yet determined whether another Massachusetts resident diagnosed with EEE contracted it out of state.
DeMaria said clusters of human cases have typically occurred over 2 or 3 years, with as many as 15 years passing before another cluster. “Now we’re seeing it almost every year,” he said.
Outbreaks of human EEE cases in the state have occurred in 1938-39, 1955-56, 1972-74, 1982-84, 1990-92, 2004-06, and 2010-11, according to a June report by the department.
“Residents should be concerned enough to take measures to avoid exposure,’’ DeMaria said.