A total of 14 horses in Maine have died in recent weeks from Eastern equine encephalitis, and Maine’s top public health officer said Thursday that all Maine people must guard against the deadly virus, which is transmitted by the bite of a mosquito.
“We are extraordinarily fortunate that thus far we have not confirmed any cases in humans,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mills said at a press conference Thursday in Augusta that the latest horse to die was in the York County town of Acton. Other horses have died in Cumberland, Kennebec, Penobscot and Waldo counties.
“There is not one area of high risk,” Mills said. But the areas where horses have died have all been near boggy areas, including cedar swamps and hardwood wetlands where mosquitoes breed, she said. None of the affected horses had been vaccinated against EEE.
At least five of the horses died in Waldo County in the towns of Unity, Thorndike and Troy. Mills said that area, in particular, should take the mosquito threat seriously. But she stressed that all areas of the state are at risk for the EEE virus, which is nearly 100 percent fatal in unvaccinated horses.
In humans, for whom there is no vaccine, EEE is about 30 percent fatal with half of all survivors suffering permanent neurological damage.
Mills, who hails from Farmington, expressed hope that Mainers will undergo a cultural change in their thinking about mosquitoes.
“People in Maine historically just don’t wear repellent, and mosquito bites have been considered a rite of passage,” she said.
She said the Maine CDC is urging schools to reschedule evening sporting events to daytime hours, when mosquitoes are not out in force. She said participants and spectators should wear DEET-containing repellents, long pants and long-sleeved shirts for any evening games and other activities.
Mosquito control must be a concern for Maine’s upcoming country fairs, Mills said, including the Fryeburg Fair, the Farmington Fair, the Cumberland Fair and the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, which is sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Mills said professional pest management companies will work with all fair organizers to help reduce mosquito numbers. Pesticide applications are only one aspect of mosquito control, she said; others include erecting netting barriers and draining areas of standing water.