Greg Chandler Staff Writer: As aerial spraying continues in Barry County in an effort to combat the spread of the mosquito-borne disease Eastern equine encephalitis, the disease claimed a fourth victim Wednesday. A Battle Creek resident died Wednesday morning from EEE, according to Brigette Reichenbaugh, deputy health officer for the Calhoun County Health Department. Nine human cases of EEE have been detected statewide -- which includes four deaths -- while 33 animal cases have been found.
Barry County has had one human case and five animal cases of EEE so far. The five animal cases are the second-most of any Michigan county, with only Kalamazoo County (seven cases) having more, according to MDHHS.
Barry Eaton District Health Department Health Officer Colette Scrimger told The Banner in an interview that the Barry County resident who contracted EEE is “showing signs of improvement.”
Meanwhile, more than 44,000 acres in Barry and Calhoun counties was sprayed by low-flying planes, beginning about 8 p.m. Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning with an organic pesticide known as Merus 3.0 to try to kill off the mosquito population.
Nearly 149,000 acres in the two counties remains to be sprayed, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“About 1:30 a.m. (Wednesday), some weather moved in, so it was the end of the spraying,” Sutfin said.
The areas that did not get sprayed were scheduled to be sprayed overnight on Wednesday into Thursday morning, but that was dependent on the rain moving out of the area. Decisions on whether to go ahead with spraying are typically made around 6:30-7 p.m., Sutfin said.
The following townships in Barry County are receiving aerial spraying: Hope, Baltimore, Prairieville, Barry, Johnstown, Assyria and Maple Grove. All of Barry and Johnstown townships are in the spray area, while only a portion of the remaining townships will be sprayed.
On Friday, after observing the spread of the cases among humans and animals, MDHHS officials declared a public health emergency and strongly recommended aerial spraying to knock out mosquito populations in the affected counties. The state is picking up the cost, estimated at between $1.5 million and $1.8 million.
On Tuesday, EEE and aerial spraying commandeered much of the Barry County commissioners' Committee of the Whole meeting in Hastings.
Scrimger told commissioners that the reason EEE is a concern this year is the transfer of the disease to the human population. Every year, they see some level of activity, typically in animals within the area, she said.
“We've known that EEE is present in certain areas of Barry County where the mosquitos that are known to carry the disease are present. ...What's unusual is to see it transfer over to the human population. It's not as common for us to see that happen – and the rate that this has been happening this year is much higher.
“In a typical year, you see about seven to eight cases in humans across the entire United States. This year alone in Michigan, we've seen nine. That, right away, tells you there's something different going on. What's causing that we don't know.”
The first hard frost would kill the mosquitos, she said, but state officials don't expect a hard frost to occur here until the end of October.
“We continue to see active mosquito presence in the area,” Scrimger said. “As recently as yesterday, mosquito surveillance is showing the types of mosquito that carry this disease. They are still here and they are active.”
Scrimger said the state's aerial spraying program uses high-tech tools, such as night vision and radar, to ensure they apply the spray only to specific areas. “They're not spraying over open bodies of water,” she noted. “They're using an organic insecticide in very low dosage – the equivalent of an ounce sprayed across an entire football field.”
The spraying is being done between dusk and dawn to reduce the risk to other species, such as honeybees, butterflies and birds. “And, once it hits the ground, it breaks down quickly so residue on surfaces is minimal,” she said.
Commissioner Dave Jackson, from Delton, said he has been hearing from his constituents. “It's been a phone-ringer.”
Chairwoman Heather Wing pointed out that the aerial spray uses a pesticide that can be used in dairy farms to eradicate flies. The chemical is not new, she said. In Bay County, this kind of spray is typically used every year to address mosquito populations in low-lying areas.
But Michigan Audubon Executive Director Heather Good told the Banner the move by MDHHS was “a hasty decision made by the state in response to a small number of cases.”
Merus 3.0 is an organic pesticide containing 5 percent pyrethrin. Pyrethrins are chemicals found naturally in some chrysanthemum flowers. They are a mixture of six chemicals that are toxic to insects. Pyrethrins, which have been registered for use since the 1950s, are commonly used to control mosquitoes, fleas, flies, moths, ants and many other pests, Sutfin said.
Citing the product label for Merus 3.0, Good said the pesticide is toxic to fish and other aquatic invertebrates, and should not be applied over bodies of water, except to target areas where adult mosquitoes are present.
In addition, Good claims aerial spraying will kill honey bees as well as other beneficial, crucial insects in our ecosystem such as monarch butterflies, which are currently migrating.
“We know enough about the risks and damage of pesticides to avoid drastic measures that will undoubtedly compromise environmental health,” Good said.
Some southwestern Michigan communities have opted out of the spraying -- most notably the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage.
Scrimger said property owners have the right to opt out of the spraying. In Kalamazoo County, so many opted out that any spraying there would have been ineffective, she said.
Residents opposed to spraying can express their concerns by calling the MI-TOXICS and health hotline at 1-800-MI-TOXIC (1-800-648-6942) or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Residents who do live in a spray zone and don't wish to be sprayed are asked to send their request via e-mail.
Regarding aerial spraying, Jay VanStee, environmental health director for the Barry-Eaton District Health Department, said, “Obviously, the idea is to kill mosquitos to try and get at the disease. … It's all risk-benefit. We're weighing the risks – I can't say there are no effects of spraying – obviously there are – but the (EEE) effects to humans outweighs it.”