The first victim of Eastern equine encephalitis in Vermont is Richard Breen, 87. He died just five days after contracting the disease.
Breen lived on an emu farm in Brandon, where last year 19 emus died from the mosquito-borne virus. It was the first case of animals dying from EEE in Vermont. Health officials are not sure where Breen was infected.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Was it just a matter of time before a human contracted EEE?
Jon Turmel/Entomologist: I would say yes.
Former state entomologist Jon Turmel says EEE surrounds us-- it's in New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts. The virus starts with birds, but is spread by mosquitoes. EEE has two forms. One is a mild version with flu-like symptoms where victims often recover. The second starts as a flu but quickly progresses, with victims going into a coma and having permanent brain damage.
"EEE is a lot more virulent, a third of the people that get it die and we have a prime example here," Turmel said.
There is no human vaccine and it's not known who it impacts more or why. Across the U.S., six people died of the disease last year. The health department says there is another Vermonter in the hospital currently with EEE.
Gina Bullard: Should we be focusing on this emu farm or is it bigger than that?
Dr. Harry Chen: The answer is yes to both. We can't test every mosquito everywhere in Vermont.
Vt. Health Commissioner Harry Chen does not know why the virus is hitting the state hard this year. But Chen says action is needed to try to prevent future infections. The state will start aerial spraying Thursday on 18,000 acres in Whiting and Brandon-- areas where mosquitoes tested positive for EEE, including the emu farm. Spraying will cost $60,000, but Chen admits it may only kill 10 percent of the mosquitoes-- best-case scenario 90 percent.
"I wouldn't let down your guard in terms of taking appropriate precautions," Chen said.
Some of those precautions are wearing light-colored clothing and using bug repellents such as DEET. If you can't use DEET, lemon eucalyptus oil is another option. You should also avoid going out during dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most prevalent.
The health department and Turmel believe the emus are likely secondary carriers of EEE. Turmel says mosquitoes normally go for other birds like blue jays, and even getting rid of the emus wouldn't solve the problem. Also, the state is coming out with a new study which shows that 10 percent of Vermont's moose and deer population is also infected with EEE across the state. So again, every Vermonter should be taking precautions to avoid mosquito bites.