LANSING (Great Lakes News) – Those planes spraying gas over Michigan’s bogs and rivers are causing far more help than harm, as odd as that may sound.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is currently in the process of spraying mosquito hot spots in Southern Michigan, hoping to prevent the spread of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). Nine people have been infected in Michigan so far, with three cases resulting in fatalities. The numbers far exceed the national average, with the CDC reporting only 5-10 cases annually in the entire United States. EEE virus is a rare disease transmitted through mosquito bite. Those who contract EEE have a 30 percent chance of dying, and those who survive suffer from neurological problems for the rest of their life.
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“Severe cases of EEE infection begin with the sudden onset of headache, high fever, chills, and vomiting,” reads the CDC FAQ on the subject. “The illness may then progress into disorientation, seizures, and coma. Approximately a third of patients who develop EEE die, and many of those who survive have mild to severe brain damage.”
The DNR joined the MDHHS in issuing EEE related warnings, asking hunters to minimize exposure to mosquito bites. DNR also urged hunters to be wary of any deer carcasses they may come across and to submit kills for testing if the deer appeared disoriented.
There is currently no effective way to combat EEE once contracted, as viruses are immune to antibiotics and an effective antiviral drug has not been discovered. Those who contract EEE must simply endure its symptoms, while horses enjoy the protection of an effective vaccine.
The high fatality rate of those who contract EEE, combined with its untreatability, leading the MDHHS to declare the high amount of cases a statewide health emergency that warrants decisive action.
“The addition of three new animal cases and recent discovery of mosquitoes that carry this virus show this is an ongoing threat to the health and safety of Michiganders and the need for continued action to prevent exposure, including aerial treatment,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS chief medical executive and chief deputy for health.
This “aerial treatment” constitutes spraying threatened counties with insecticide. Many residents were skeptical of the MDHHS’ plans, with some counties (including Kalamazoo and Portage Counties) opting out of the spraying treatment.
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Carl Doud, President of the Michigan Mosquito Control Association, believes that detractors are simply misinformed in exactly how the process works. Doud is not directly connected to the MDHHS’ control attempts, but has years of expertise in controlling mosquito populations. Analysts use advanced methods to identify which areas require aerial spraying, leaving much of the county untouched.
“The benefit with an aerial application is you can get a much greater uniform application over a larger area,” Doud said. “They’re not going to blanket the entire count. In a sense its targeted, but its more effective than other methods because they can blanket cover the areas that they have identified as dangerous.”
In order to prevent potential damage to other insect populations, such as honey bees, planes spray when mosquitoes are most active and most other insects are resting.
“The active ingredient that is used could potentially affect a whole host of insects,” Doud said. “The applications are done when mosquitoes are most active: in the evening. We count on the fog settling in while they are flying so they get a higher does. It’s a very small amount of active ingredient formulated explicitly for mosquitos and not larger insects. Pollinators, butterflies and various bees, are largely inactive in the evening.”
As far as larger creatures who might eat the sprayed mosquitoes are concerned, insecticides will have little to no impact on their health.
“It’s a small amount of material that gets applied, the mosquito usually dies within the day,” Doud said. “It would only potentially hurt insect predators, but those are mostly looking for live prey.”
The MDHHS argues that they weighed the potential impact to local ecosystems when considering spraying as an option, noting that the lack of impact combined with the extreme risk to human life posed by EEE made the decision easy.
“The decision to spray was a risk-benefit choice,” said Lynn Sutfin, Public Information Officer for the MDHHS. “The risk of health or environmental impacts from spraying are low and it will decrease the potential for long-term human health consequences from EEE infection, including possible death. The insecticide being used is registered with the EPA and is labeled for public health use over residential areas. In general, no short-term or long-term risks to human or animal health are expected during or after spraying.”
The MDHHS will continue to treat selected counties in the coming days. Checkout Michigan.gov/EEE for daily updates on spraying schedules.