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EEE, and controversy over public health response, unlikely to go away

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

Michigan is experiencing its worst-ever outbreak of a sometimes deadly illness spread by mosquitoes. 

It's called Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE (Triple E) for short.   

Schools in West Michigan have been rescheduling a lot of outdoor sports these days to avoid dusk. That's when mosquitoes, possibly carrying EEE, are most active.

We caught up with Shavonne Berry, mother to Kalamazoo Central quarterback KC Berry, at a recent game.

"This game started at 3 o'clock," says Berry. "I don't get off work until 3:30, so I'm late. I know parents have been saying they wanted to work concession, but they have to rearrange work schedules to be able to volunteer at a kid's function. That's sad."

Here's why people are so worried.

In about 4 to 5% of people infected with EEE, the virus moves into the brain. That either kills them or causes neurological damage, often permanent. 

There's no vaccine and no treatment other than support measures like IV fluids.

The state of Michigan said it would offer aerial spraying of a pesticide to reduce mosquito populations.  Berry says she'd be all for it.  

"If it's this bad, to where you have to rearrange your life, then if it's necessary to spray, at least try it," she says.

But Kalamazoo County will not be spraying, although other affected counties will. That's because 1,200 people and groups opted their properties out, including the Kalamazoo Nature Center. 

The Center says spraying could harm bees and other insects, frogs, and fish, and deprive migrating birds, which eat mosquitoes, of an important food source.

For each opt out, the plane has to skip a 22 acre zone around it. 

Jim Rutherford is the county's health officer.

"From an aeronautical perspective, you can't just start and stop on a dime when you're traveling 175 miles an hour, 300 feet in the air," says Rutherford.  "We calculated all of the opt-outs, and realized, hey, there's just nowhere for us to treat."

Rutherford was surprised and disappointed by all the opt outs. 

He's not in general a fan of spraying but in this case he is. The spraying uses about an ounce per acre of a pyrethrin-type pesticide, which is considered safe for humans and mammals.

It is also unlikely to harm daytime active insects like bees. 

Rutherford wonders if the state should consider shrinking that 22 acre zone around opt outs.

"Basically you're looking at 5% of the population making the decision for the whole county," he says.

This likely won't be the last time Michigan has a bad EEE summer. Climate change could make some seasons worse. 

Howard Russell is an entomologist at Michigan State University.

"Ample rain and warm temperatures means there's going to be more mosquitoes," Russell says.

And Michigan's swamps, bogs, and hardwood wetlands are a mosquito paradise, he says. 

"Michigan is blessed with some 61 different species of mosquitoes. Our topography is perfect for mosquito development," he says.

Russell says his house is surrounded by swampland. So what does an entomologist do when the mosquitoes are thick? Despite his love of insects, "I'm pretty careful with what I spray, but there are times of the year where I have to get out my backpack sprayer and I have to knock down the adults."

So far, nine people have been sickened by EEE in the state. Four have died. 

Health officials say people should take precautions even if their county sprayed.

That includes wearing long sleeves and long pants outside, especially at dusk, using insect repellent, repairing window screens, and dumping standing water in your yard where mosquitoes can breed.

There is the usual relief on the way. 

Cold temperatures are in the forecast, and the first hard freeze will generally kill mosquitoes. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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