The elevation of the recognized threat of mosquito-transmitted illnesses to “high” in Ipswich, Gloucester and Manchester and “critical” in the town of Essex this past week is raising all sorts of issues for those who schedule outdoor events. Hamilton and Wenham have gone so far as to ban outdoor activities.
The threat from Eastern equine encephalitis, which can be transmitted through mosquito bites, is real. Massachusetts has had seven confirmed human cases of EEE so far this year, three of which were fatal. Two of the human cases were in the Merrimack Valley, in Amesbury and Haverhill. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, most people bitten by an infected mosquito develop no symptoms. Severe cases begin with flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills and vomiting.
Hamilton, however, went a bit too far with its ban on private functions, as well, which would include such events as backyard barbecues in neighborhood homes. That will surely rankle those who fear Massachusetts is becoming a nanny state, where all our actions are directed by government, presumably for our own protection.
Hamilton Health Agent Leslie Whelan, however, said the ban on private activities is largely symbolic and will be self-enforced.
“We’re just being really clear that it’s a really dangerous activity to be hanging around outside,” Whelan told reporter Bethany Bray. “People are going to make their own decisions, but by using this language that we’ve chosen (banning all activities), we’re underscoring the importance of avoiding mosquito bites.”
The threat has meant the upheaval of outdoor-event schedules across the North Shore.
Many high school football games have been moved from Friday nights to Saturdays. Local high school sports officials have had to move other games up to 3 p.m. or so to allow players to finish by what has become a 5 p.m. safety curfew. Events such as Gordon College’s homecoming trail race this past Saturday were moved later in the morning to avoid prime mosquito times.
It’s a sensible approach for a short-term problem. If it means also changing dates, or even canceling junior varsity high school games — which, under most circumstances, follow varsity soccer and field hockey clashes, especially, during the week — so be it. For the city- and town-ordered bans on sponsored outdoor activities after 5 p.m. until the threat eases drives home the awareness that this illness is a serious public health issue and cannot be ignored.
While mosquito-borne illnesses have become something of an annual threat, the high number of human cases of EEE and West Nile virus across the state have staked out this season as among the worst in a decade. That means taking the necessary precautions, playing it safe — and anxiously awaiting the first hard frost, which should eliminate the threat in the coming weeks.