UNITY, Maine — The Common Ground Country Fair, the annual celebration of rural life and organic agriculture, will pay special attention this year to the health hazard to humans and livestock posed by the presence of the EEE virus in Waldo County. The fair will take place Sept. 25-27.
Eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE, has killed 14 horses in Maine in recent weeks. Seven of those horses died in Waldo County and four others have died in nearby Kennebec and Penobscot counties. Public health officials say these equine deaths are a clear indicator that the deadly mosquito-borne virus, which is dangerous to humans, is well established near the Unity headquarters of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and its expansive fairgrounds.
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday that she is concerned about the Common Ground Country Fair this year.
“It is in the middle of a known hot spot of EEE,” she said. “Those horses could have been people.”
The EEE virus, present in many wild bird species and some domestic species, is carried by mosquitoes to horses where it is almost always fatal unless the animals have been vaccinated. In humans, EEE is fatal in about a third of cases, causing permanent neurological damage in about half of all survivors. There is no vaccine for humans.
Heather Spaulding, associate director of MOFGA, said Friday that fairgoers this year will see signs posted on the grounds advising them to cover up with long sleeves and long pants and to wear an effective insect repellent. The chemical DEET, recommended by mainstream public health experts as the most effective repellent ingredient, will not be found at Common Ground because of its toxic qualities, Spaulding said. But natural repellents, including the Buzz-Off brand made in Corinna, will be available at the fair, she said.
Unlike other Maine fairs, Common Ground has no midway and closes up relatively early in the evening, Spaulding noted.
“The vast majority of our activities take place during the day, when mosquitoes are dormant,” she said. In addition, she said the fairgrounds are open and well-mowed, discouraging mosquito activity.
A carbon dioxide-emitting “mosquito magnet” that attracts and traps the insects has been installed in a tenting area where fair volunteers and some exhibitors stay during the three-day weekend, Spaulding said.
Mills, formerly a practicing pediatrician, said DEET is “by far the most effective and long-lasting repellent” and is approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics for use on children as young as 2 months.
Some other repellents — those containing picardin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus — have been recommended as alternatives by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mills said, but must be applied more often.
State veterinarian Don Hoenig said Friday that he has been working with MOFGA since the first EEE horse death was reported in the nearby town of Troy this summer.
He said the organization has been responsive in communicating about the danger of EEE and that most exhibitors are likely to have vaccinated their horses in time for them to be protected against the virus.
“Most will take heed of the fact that they’re coming to the epicenter of this epidemic,” he said.
Llamas and alpacas also are susceptible to EEE, Hoenig said, and some owners vaccinate those animals with the horse vaccine, although it is not clear whether it confers immunity.
While organic certification standards forbid the use of antibiotics, pesticides and some other substances in raising animals for food, vaccines are permitted and encouraged, he said.
Hoenig said a few hard frosts will mark the end of Maine’s mosquito season and with it, this year’s EEE outbreak.
On the Web: www.mofga.org