It seems unbelievable that a healthy 5-year-old could die from a mosquito bite in central New York. But in August, Eastern Equine Encephalitis took the life of Maggie Wilcox of Oswego County.
When asked how she is doing, Maggie’s mom Julie says “I don’t even know how to answer that question. Bad. Coping. Trying to deal. [I’m here] to support, to try to get something accomplished. If my presence here helps in any way, shape or form, then I want it to,” said Wilcox.
At the Oswego roundtable on the state and local response to EEE, State Senator Dave Valesky was among the officials and experts who acknowledged that tragedy is what brought them here.
“We need to do everything we can, whether we’re from the state legislature, Cornell University or public health departments at the local level, to make sure that a situation like what happened to the Wilcox family never happens again”, said Valesky.
The disease, carried in birds and spread by mosquitoes to mammals like horses and people, has long been a concern in the four counties around Oneida Lake. But state Deputy Health Commissioner Guthrie Birkhead pointed out human cases have been rare. In the last 40 years five New Yorkers have died from EEE, all in central New York. One was in 1971, another in 1983.
“For the last three years, we’ve had a human case each in 2009, 2010 and 2011,” said Birkhead. “This is a change in the pattern.”
Another different pattern is the virus’s spread. Counties monitor for it using mosquito traps, and the first positive tests are usually at the north shore of the lake. Spraying those areas with insecticides then, tends to slow its spread.
But Oswego County Public Health Director Dennis Norfleet said, that’s not what happened in 2011.
“Tragically, the time that Maggie probably came in contact with the virus in the northern part of the county was the same time it was all coming out,” said Norfleet. “So it was all over all at once. An entirely different situation than we’ve ever experienced. ”
Cornell veterinary expert Belinda Thompson says horses and people are considered “dead-end hosts”, they quickly die from the virus rather than carrying it. So by the time we start losing horses, we can also lose people.
“The horses are actually serving to warn us of the human health risk,” said Thompson. “But because we encourage the vaccination of horses and most horses in the state are probably vaccinated, depending on your perspective we may be very lucky that there were unvaccinated horses that could actually serve as this warning.”
Thompson also points out that while veterinarians are responsible to report the illness, horse owners are not required to report horse illnesses or deaths.
Thompson says in the southern u-s, many states use caged chickens to catch the virus at an earlier stage because they can get infected but not sick.
“They put out healthy chickens and they take blood samples from them periodically and see when they get exposed,” said Thompson.
When Maggie died, the family avoided the public eye. But just days later, the county announced more positive mosquito tests, while opting against aerial spraying. The family spoke out, and the county sprayed.
But aerial spraying is not only costly, temporary, and dangerous to the pilot, officials also admit it’s not very effective.
That’s why, Norfleet says, health officials rely on asking the public to personally protect themselves.
Senate Agricultural Committee Chair Patty Ritchie, who sponsored the forum, suggested using the New York Alert system to warn folks in affected areas when it’s most important to put the pesticide “DEET” on kids.
“When you start talking about using mosquito spray with DEET in it, some people are automatically alarmed because they think it’s bad for them, but apparently that’s the recommended use,” said Ritchie. “So if it’s possible to use something like the NY alert and people get an actual text that explains it, you’re probably more apt to pay attention to something like that.”
Ritchie also asked why there’s a vaccine licensed for horses but not humans. Several officials suggested financial incentives might spur vaccine-developers. But Thompson said it’s not that simple.
“There are many people now who don’t take their kids for the commonly accepted vaccines that are recognized to cause widespread problems in children, so one needs to ask the question of whether someone would take their child to a pediatrician for a EEE vaccine or not,” said Thompson.
She points out that a vaccine developed to protect people against Lyme disease was withdrawn from the market when nobody used it.