Quarter-million budget suggested for deadly virus prevention
By Cristina Kumka
STAFF WRITER | December 09,2012
BRANDON — The area’s mosquito-control district has called the state’s process of tracking and testing mosquitoes that carry deadly viruses “shamefully inadequate” and has asked legislators for a quarter-million-dollar statewide budget to rectify the problem.
The recommendation from the Brandon-Leicester-Salisbury-Goshen Insect Control District comes as the state Agency of Agriculture and state Department of Health are considering how much to ask in 2013 funding for the increased surveillance of eastern equine encephalitis. EEE is a virus, transmitted through mosquito bites, that killed two local residents this summer — believed to be the first EEE deaths in Vermont history.
Scott Sgorbati, 49, of Sudbury died weeks after being bitten and Richard Hollis Breen, 87, of Brandon died days after contracting EEE, possibly on the same land where 19 of his own emus died the year prior from contracting the same virus.
There was also at least one horse death from EEE and two non-fatal human cases of West Nile, also an arbovirus or disease transmitted to humans and animals through biting bugs.
State lawmakers asked the local district Oct. 4 to devise a budget proposal based on the arbovirus emergency and response in 2012.
The BLSG district is one of only three such districts in Vermont. It treats larvae and adult mosquitoes in the four towns it represents because of a highly concentrated number of bugs in the area, which is mostly wetlands.
The BLSG district recently recommended a budget of $226,600 to kick-start a better statewide mosquito program.
It includes filling the state’s vacant chief entomologist position, hiring six field assistants for the one state employee who traps and tests mosquitoes statewide on his own, timelier testing of samples and a statewide education program to inform Vermonters of the risks.
“At present, we must advise that Vermont has a shamefully inadequate capacity to track, assess, monitor, or treat arbovirus vectors,” the BLSG recommendation notes.
“Furthermore, that very limited capacity is spotty and mostly reactive,” it continues. “If we are to seriously address arboviral threats and avoid future human deaths and economic impacts, Vermont needs a comprehensive and proactive vector and arboviral program that is up to the task.”
Entomologist Alan Graham, the only state employee charged with trapping and studying mosquitoes, said this summer that more money would have led to testing more insects and more information could have been passed to Health Commissioner Harry Chen sooner for him to declare a public health emergency and warrant the spraying of deadly bugs.
Graham said his own position was funded based on a verbal agreement from the Health Department and he was the only one in the state trapping and testing mosquitoes for EEE at the time.
In its recommendation, which included rough cost estimates, the BLSG district asked the state to replace Jon Turmel, the retired chief state entomologist, for $75,000 a year. It also asked that Graham be given six assistants to do field sampling and processing of mosquitoes for a cost of $86,400 in 2013.
The district also included $5,000 for transportation and $20,000 for samples to be sent out to labs and tested sooner.
This is all new money and the district said it was above and beyond the support given to mosquito districts each year to operate.
Devon Fuller, the head of the Brandon Select Board, recently drafted a letter to the state supporting the district’s proposed budget. He said Friday that Gary Meffe, the BLSG chairman, pointed out that money for in-state testing of mosquitoes for EEE was a hot button issue, but that funds would better be used to hire staffers to set more traps, gather mosquitoes and send out samples sooner to any laboratory that will test them for Vermont.
“They need more data to understand what’s going on,” Fuller said.
Lack of funding
In response to the two deaths, Chen declared an imminent public health risk for the Brandon-Sudbury-Whiting area late this summer, triggering two cycles of aerial spraying to kill virus-carrying mosquitoes over 18,000 acres in Brandon and Whiting.
But the spraying was believed by some to be too late and more could have been done, if not for the perfect storm of detrimental factors.
The declaration and spraying came after a systemic lack of federal funding caused samples to get stockpiled, a contract with a testing provider delayed and a lack of manpower — all contributing to state officials not finding out about the increased presence of EEE until it was too late, according to Graham and others close to the issue.
Graham and Cary Giguere, pesticide program manager for the state Agency of Agriculture, said there was a 75 percent reduction in federal funding — from $100,000 in 2009 to $25,000 at the start of 2012 — from the Centers for Disease Control to trap, identify and analyze mosquito pools. Both said that drastically reduced how mosquitoes were studied and how viruses that could effect humans were detected.
The Sgorbati family questioned why nothing was done when EEE first turned up in the dead emus in 2011.
State officials said results confirming EEE antibodies were in the emus’ blood came back too late in the year, when it was too cold to spray for the bugs.
More local help
The district also told the state it would allow Graham and his personnel to use the BLSG building in Brandon, and the state could finance a workspace within it to store traps, other field equipment and use an existing ultra-cold freezer for storing samples.
That budget request is $15,200.
It also said member towns would be asked to pay 14 percent more in 2013 to support the district because of its dwindling budget.
Brandon officials said they would increase its share of funding for the local mosquito district out of its town budget.
“The health of our citizens and our economy depends on how we all respond to the challenge of arboviral diseases,” said Brandon’s letter of support.
The district also proposed that $25,000 be put toward a statewide education program to inform people of the importance of protecting themselves and clearing their properties of any mosquito-breeding areas.
Lastly, it asked the state in its budget request what the district should do if other towns outside the district needed mosquito treatment.
If Sudbury, where one of the victim’s lived, and Whiting, where the highest concentrations of EEE mosquitoes were found in 2012, want coverage, the district asked who would pay for it.
“Perhaps the insurance industry in Vermont would be interested in funding arbovirus detection and prevention work, which could save the industry countless outlays in hospitalization costs,” the district suggested in its recommendation.
“Likewise, Vermont tourism and business could be significantly impacted if EEE or West Nile Virus became more common and resulted in more deaths,” the district added. “Millions of dollars in visitor spending and business taxes could be lost if there were an outbreak. The state tourism bureau or chamber of commerce might be willing to fund arbovirus work as a preventive measure to ensure minimal impacts to tourism or business.”