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February 14, 2014

State: Expect to see EEE, West Nile each year

AMESBURY — Months before the first mosquitoes of the year pester Greater Newburyport residents, local and state health officials are spreading the word that West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, potentially deadly diseases carried by the insects, are here to stay and should be considered a yearly concern.

Earlier this week, health officials informed the state’s public health council that West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis can be expected every year and no longer should be considered a surprise or an emergency.

Eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE, is a rare but deadly mosquito-borne illness. The virus can infect people of all ages, but typically people younger than age 15, over age 50, or who have weaker immune systems are most at risk of serious illness. Over the last few years, EEE has infected people in a geographically larger part of the state with a potential hot spot emerging in communities along the New Hampshire border.

According to health officials, an uptick in the number of EEE and West Nile cases in 2012 prompted the state to begin increasing communication with municipalities and lowering the risk threshold for taking actions, such as curtailing evening, outdoor activities. EEE is riskiest for young children, while West Nile generally sickens older people, and many people infected by West Nile will only have a low-level illness.

EEE was first recorded in Massachusetts in 1938, and has historically been concentrated in Norfolk, Plymouth and Bristol counties, though in recent years it has occurred in the Connecticut River Valley. West Nile is more concentrated in population centers.

Locally, the announcement came as little surprise.

Amesbury and Salisbury health agent Jack Morris said he has been experiencing detection of those two diseases each year.

“It is a virus in the environment that is here to stay, similar to the migration of rabies,” Morris said.

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