Get a flu shot? Good news, you may still get the flu.

Originally published Dec. 18, 2014

United States health officials are warning the flu vaccine may not be fully effective in preventing the spread of disease due to changes in this season’s most common strain of flu virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Dec. 3.

A health advisory released by the CDC to healthcare providers announced that the nation is seeing a rise in flu cases caused by influenza A (H3N2), one of the largest strains of influenza virus. The advisory stated that a little more than half of viral specimens tested were antigenically different from the H3N2 virus component present in this season’s vaccines. This means the vaccine does not specifically protect against the exact strain of virus now most commonly circulating.

The culprit? Antigenic drift, small changes in the genes of flu viruses which occur over time as the virus continually replicates, according to the CDC. Over time, a person’s antibodies will no longer be effective against the virus, and so the person could again become sick. This year, the H3N2 strain has drifted from the strain present in the vaccine, so the antibodies created by the vaccine will not provide the same protection that they would have.

More than 144 million people have received flu vaccines this year, according to CDC reports. This means millions could still be susceptible to the illness that causes fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, muscle and body aches, fatigue and, in severe cases, death.

It is spread by coughing, sneezing and coming into contact with the droplets produced by these activities, according to the CDC. It is recommended anyone over the age of six months be vaccinated unless they have an egg allergy or have had adverse reactions in the past, according to Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pinette says this type of circumstance is not unusual because the strains of flu included in the vaccine are decided by the World Health Organization toward the end of the previous flu season. This proves to be problematic as the virus can change from when the strains are selected in February to when the vaccine is made available to the public in August.

Pinette says WHO became aware of possible changes to the viruses in March of this year, but couldn’t do anything because production of the vaccine had already begun.

News of H3N2 drift casts a shadow over the anticipated success of a new vaccine formulation. This new formulation, called a quadrivalent vaccine, contains four flu viruses as opposed to the traditional trivalent option, which only contains three. It was hoped that this new vaccine would offer enhanced protection from the flu, but recent numbers indicate that the flu will remain a national health concern in coming months.

Between Nov. 29 through Dec. 6, the federal CDC reported 3,415 new positive flu specimens, more than 3,200 of which were influenza A viruses. Of these, more than 90 percent were H3N2 types. As of Dec. 6, there more than 8,800 confirmed positive flu specimens in the U.S.

As of Dec. 13, there have been 121 confirmed positive specimens of flu in Maine, 47 more since the previous week’s report. Most cases are in Cumberland and Penobscot counties.

Click here for an interactive map of Maine’s current flu situation.

However, the number of confirmed flu cases in Maine and the nation could be much higher than what is currently known.

“Influenza itself is not reportable, so the only reports we have are labs and providers who are willing to submit,” said Sara Robinson, epidemiologist with the Maine CDC.

With this thought, many people are bracing for what could become a severe flu season. The U.S. CDC said in a press release that early data suggests the 2014-2015 flu season has the potential to become severe and urged immediate vaccination for those who have not done so already.

“It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC said in the press release.

“Our feeling is you can never expect the unexpected, but we have to be prepared. Part of our prevention is making sure we’re educating providers, sending out these health alerts and just preparing for the worst,” Pinette said.

Part of the uncertainty of this year’s flu season is due to the unpredictability of the influenza A viruses.There are two proteins that determine the strain of flu — the H and the N — and there are many different forms each protein, according to the CDC. As a result, the virus can change into a multitude of different strain types.

“There’s a lot of H’s and a lot of N options, and they all kind of play around with each other and they mutate a lot, so we never know when we’re going to get a combination that’s bad,” Robinson said.

As of right now, the H3N2 virus has not mutated into a new strain of flu, Robinson said. Instead, it has merely drifted from the form included in the vaccine into a different, but still antigenically similar subtype. Because the virus is still similar, the vaccine may offer cross-protection from the flu, which will likely lessen the severity of symptoms, Pinette said.

Flu outbreaks tend to occur most often at institutions like long-term care facilities and college campuses. In light of the recent drift of influenza H3N2, some University of Maine students voiced their opinions regarding the flu vaccine.

“I get [the vaccine] because I don’t want to get sick,“ said Emma Hardy, who studies communication sciences and disorders at the university. “I feel people probably don’t get [vaccinated] because they probably think they’re not going to be the person to get the flu.”

But others were not as supportive of universal vaccination protocol.

“I don’t really worry about it,” said Daniel Norwood, a history and political science student at the university, when asked if concerned about the flu. “I don’t really give it a second thought,” he said. “I don’t get sick that often.”

“I don’t get the shot because it doesn’t fight against all strains of flu,” said electrical engineering major Kati Burdet, who for seven years worked at Redington Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan.

Burden stated that after the two times she got a flu vaccine she became sick. “I think it’s a very controversial issue because most hospitals require you to get a flu shot if you’re an employee there,” she said. “I think it’s a personal choice.”

Still, Dr. Pinette stresses that vaccination is the cornerstone of treatment.

“The more people that get immunized the better we will be preventing spread within our communities,” she said.

“Mutations occur regularly with the influenza virus,” Robinson said. “That is why it is important to get vaccinated each year because the circulating strains change rapidly.

Some mutations are worse than others,” she said.

The CDC recommends good respiratory etiquette such as coughing or sneezing into the elbow or shoulder, frequent hand washing with warm soapy water, and staying home if sick as preventative measures to practice to avoid catching the flu.

The CDC also recommends that anyone who suspects they are sick with the flu should contact their doctor within 48 hours of becoming sick as this is the best potential time for treatment, although treatment can still be started after this period with lesser success. People with the flu are often treated with the antiviral drugs Oseltamivir and Zanamivir, which target the flu virus and stop its replication in the body.

Despite uncertainty about the severity of this year’s flu season, Pinette still stands by her stance that Maine is prepared for this flu season.

“Every year you can’t anticipate it,” she said. “We just have to go forward and be prepared.”

Featured image courtesy: By Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith Content Providers(s): CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Look out for me:” Mapping Nellie Bly’s Historic Career

Originally published Dec. 3, 2014

An Interactive Project for CMJ 211: Journalism Introduction and History

Round the World with Nellie Bly
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Few journalists make the news in addition to reporting it. In the nineteenth century, few women even reported the news at all. But that all changed when Nellie Bly took her pen to the paper of Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, launching a career that would take her inside New York’s best-kept secrets and eventually across the globe.

And when you look at her career through maps, it’s astounding just how far Bly went in order to further the journalism profession.

Born in Cochran Mills, Pa., in 1864, Bly grew up in poverty after the passing of her wealthy father. Struggling to support her mother, she took a position at the Pittsburgh Dispatch but left when her gender became the main topic of the bulk of her assignments. In 1887, she left a note to her editor saying “I am off to New York. Look out for me.” What happened in the coming years was history in the making.

Below is a map of the Pittsburgh area where Bly was born and first worked. Click on the map points for more information.

Countless editors in New York turned her down because of her sex. It was Pittsburgh all over again. But Bly’s big break came when, after months of searching for a job John Cockerill, the managing editor at The New York World took a chance in assigning her to fake insanity and gain entry into the asylum at Blackwell’s Island in city’s East River, according to Fellow. In true muckraker fashion, she took her work to the streets, speaking in a strange Spanish accent and displaying odd behavior. After gaining entry for being showing “dementia with delusions of persecution,” according to History, Bly spent 10 days in the asylum and documented the horrors she saw and encountered before Pulitzer’s attorney was able to have her released, Fellow describes.

A map of Manhattan, Ny. can be seen below. In Lower Manhattan Island, the former location of Pulitzer’s New York World can be seen plotted near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. Blackwell’s Island, which has been called Roosevelt Island since 1973, can be seen in the top-right of the map. The World building was torn down in 1955 to expand automobile entry to the bridge, according to Columbia University Libraries. The original asylum building is now luxury green-living apartments.

Bly’s piece, Ten Days in a Mad-House brought to light the tragic fallacies of the mental healthcare system. Her book described the mistreatment of patients who could not speak English and were dubbed insane.

“Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore,” she writes, “Mrs. Schanz begged in German to know where she was, and pleaded for liberty. Her voice broken by sobs, she was led unheard out to us.”

She recounted the horrors of the ice-cold baths.

“Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head–ice-cold water, too,” she wrote. “I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”

The horrors went on, from the serving of rotten food to the beating of patients to the nurses’ mockery at mental illness, and Bly was there to document it all.

She was an instant success; so much so, in fact, that Pulitzer utilized her courageous spirit to launch his most ambitious journalistic stunt. Nellie was to travel the world in under 80 days in attempts to beat Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in Eighty Days.

Starting in Hoboken, Nj. in November of 1889 and traveling by steamboat, rail and mule, her record-setting, 72-day journey can be seen chronicled on the world map below. Zoom in to see each individual point and click on the points to see more information about the dates Bly traveled there and when she left.

Back in the United States, one million World readers took part in a competition to see how long it would take for Bly to make it home. The winner would earn a free trip to Europe with $250 to spend on Pulitzer’s dime, according to Fellow.

When Bly returned from her trip, she was treated as a celebrity, regarded as the best reporter in the United States. Her Around the World in Seventy-Two Days documented her 21,740-mile journey around the globe. And although many dismissed her travels as a publicity stunt, her heart remained true to her journalistic responsibilities in New York: to search for the truth, expose wrongdoing and promote justice, and reinvent the profession of journalism. And, while she may have been working for The New York World,  her reporting career served as an influence to the broader world, as a whole.

Fire and Ice: Audio Slideshow

Originally published Nov. 21, 2014

In collaboration with Amanda Curtis
What do ancient volcanoes, polar ice, modern storms and a Texan all have in common?

A lot more than you might think.

Donna “Teye” Kalteyer, a University of Maine graduate student and research assistant who is researching the cryptotephra particles trapped in the ice at our planet’s poles, is trying to make the connection.

Tephra are the particles in volcanic ash released into the air during an eruption. Cryptotephra are very small volcanic ash particles that become trapped in ice after large volcanic eruptions. Kalteyer explains that, because the atmosphere is thinner at the equator, volcanic tephra particles, especially cryptotephra, can float above the Earth for upward of three years while simultaneously travelling great distances by wind.

Their destination? Anywhere, but Kalteyer focuses on the cryptotephra found in ice. This cryptotephra can be radiocarbon dated to refine dates on major volcanic eruptions throughout the planet’s history.

By looking at ice core samples taken at the poles, Kalteyer hopes to identify major storm events over the last 800,000 years. Climatologists can observe how the Earth responded in these past events by looking at the paleoclimate record, which can help them better predict future climate change scenarios, according to Kalteyer.

“Humans have only been recording climate events for the past, at most, 500 years,” she said. “But we can actually look physically at the chemicals in an ice core and figure out what happened with the weather and with the climate.”

She hopes her research will be used to further understand past weather events so we can better understand today’s, bridging the gap in knowledge over the last 800,000 years.

“[Tephra] creates a time-linked layer, globally or regionally,” she said. “I just think it’s really cool.”

 

Correction Note: Ms. Kalteyer has noted she misspoke in saying the atmosphere was thinnest at the equator. She has told us the atmosphere is actually thickest at the equator, stating she’s, “aware that the atmosphere is actually thickest at the equator, but her enthusiasm outpaced her editor.”

Off the beaten path

Originally published Nov. 14, 2014

The sun beats down as cool October winds rattle tent poles and shake leaves from their branches. Townspeople gather to exchange casual chitchat as they pick through potatoes and decide whose kale is the freshest and greenest. Children run about and play, enjoying the last sunny warmth of the season before autumn tightens its grip. The Farmers Market in Orono is in full bloom and boom.

Marketgoers are drawn to one stand. Perhaps it’s the stacks of squash in front of the tent that entices them to look further. Maybe it’s the promise of grass-fed organic beef steaks making their triumphant return to town. Or maybe it’s the service – friendly, fast and perfectly quirky. And yes, this is where the kale is always the best. That is, of course, if you can find the kale behind the mounds of potatoes, onions, carrots, Swiss chard and cabbage.

Just barely taller than her farm stand – her brown hair pulled back, her hands fitted in thick, wool gloves – she greets her customers with a smile and secures them with a laugh, maybe two, before fixing them up with 30 pounds of onions or a five pound bag of organic fingerlings.

She’s Rachel Katz, a 34-year-old New Jersey native, mother and one of the many female farmers making a difference in Maine’s towns and cities.

“I like performing a vital need to my community,” she says of her role as a farmer.

She might not be the typical portrait of a farmer, your average American Gothic. A University of Vermont graduate with a degree in political science and a concentration in theory, she stands at her booth in waiting, fiddling with an unexpected technological adornment: a bright blue iPhone.

But she’s never been one to follow the crowd.

Anarchy

It brings to mind visions of rebellion and dissent, the Red Scare and anti-government protests, retreat from modern society. But this isn’t anarchy in its literal meaning. It’s greener than that. It was in Burlington, Vermont in 2002 that Katz got her first taste of separatism. After graduating from UVM, she joined a local anarchist group. But she doesn’t like to call it that.

“It was a group of people in Burlington who were doing a lot of social justice work. And a lot of them were anarchists, meaning they don’t want to give up their proxy, they want to participate fully in the society in which they live,” Katz explains. “Part of that is food production.”

The newly graduated Katz credits the group with her blossoming success as a farmer. They taught her about farming, self-sufficiency and the power of local foods. Going against the very organic grain, political science degree in hand, she packed her bags and headed for California to work on a farm.

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Oct. 18, 2014. Katz restocks the front of her stand, keeping every carrot in line and each cauliflower from falling over. Alan Bennett

The Maine Edge

One would think California has it all with its sprawling vineyards and seemingly endless fields, but for some it lacks that feeling of home. And, while Maine isn’t exactly known for being a leader in many ways, farming is an exception to that. Famous for its vast potato fields, distinct variety of blueberry and exceptionally fertile soils, it’s a farmer’s haven.

Right: Oct. 18, 2014 – Katz restocks the front of her stand, keeping every carrot in line and each cauliflower from falling over.

Having felt misunderstood in California with what she calls her New Jersey “tough love and sarcastic approach to life,” Katz moved to Maine in 2005  when she joined the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association apprenticeship program, which kickstarted her nearly 10-year career in the state.

Katz says she’s drawn to Maine because younger farmers are sprouting up all over the state, including her. And not just all farmers – women are reaping the benefits of Maine’s naturally fertile lands, and they’re doing so more than other states. Forty-one percent of Maine farmers are women, according to the Maine Farmland Trust. This is compared to 31 percent nationally.

Katz is one of them, and she’s proud of it.

“Sexism hurts all of us,” she says, describing how it is important for her as a woman to be involved in this line of work.

Perhaps one of Maine’s biggest advantages is its embracement of locavore culture, which supports a rich agricultural community in the state.

“There are so many ways in which Maine is backwards, but it seems to be on the cutting edge of the local food situation,” Katz says.

It’s true – Maine has believed in the local food movement for some time. Katz’s farm, Terranian Farm in Troy, is certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which is the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country. Founded in 1971, MOFGA aims to support local farms and communities through organic farming practices.

Katz says access to land is a big issue in farming. In California, the farm where she worked nearly a decade ago is still for sale for $3.3 million. But, she says, Maine is one of the last places in the Northeast where land is even semi-affordable.

Key to what sets Katz’s farm apart from the rest is the fact it is one of the few remaining entirely horse-powered farms in the country. The gigantic horses – of which Katz’s largest weighs 2,000 pounds – till the soil and tow machinery across the entire 3-acre farm.

But she’s not too proud to ask for help.

A little help…

Despite her strong footing, Katz admits being a successful farmer isn’t as easy and glamorous as it might at first sound. Calculating and paying off input costs, traveling 45 minutes from Troy to Orono – among other places – every week and having to pay herself, she acknowledges that sometimes self-sufficiency isn’t always attainable.

“It’s almost like a fool’s errand trying to be self-sufficient. I don’t really think it’s possible,” she says of how she would rather trust professional seed growers instead of trying to rely on her recycled ones.

And, while she does grow a lot of different vegetables, she admits that any dreams of trying to run America’s largest, most productive organic farm are just detrimental to the business.

“Generalism used to be much more important, but when you spread yourself too thin, you can’t be as good at any individual thing,” she says.

… Goes a long way.

And while her spirits may seem down, they’re certainly not out. For Katz, it’s not about the money or business, and it’s not even really about the farm. It’s about providing a better life for her and her family.

“We eat everything, every different kind of thing that we produce,” she says. “And I think my kids are more likely to eat it because we produce it. My son particularly has always taken great pride in the food that we grow.”

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Oct. 18, 2014. The fruits — or vegetables, rather — of a successful harvest. Alan Bennett

As for the community and the state? She doesn’t care if she has to pay for the hundreds of thousands of seeds she needs, as long as it means she can work doing what she does best: helping people and giving back. For her, it’s the power of food that she enjoys the most, and it’s what motivates her to work tirelessly day after day.

“I like that people trust me with feeding their families,” she says, packing a 30 pound bag of onions for one customer and bringing it to him around the front of her stand before she returns to that blue iPhone – from which, by the way, she runs her entire farm and community-supported agriculture business.

And while she still may not b e the tallest farmer in Maine, Rachel Katz stands tall in the eyes of the agricultural world for being a leader among women farmers. A former anarchist turned provider for the community, she’s taken life off the beaten path.

Just Listen: The Peaceful Fight Against Domestic Violence

Originally published Nov. 7, 2014

It’s the topic none of us really want to talk about.

Domestic violence may be an incredibly personal issue, but by not talking about it, we aren’t helping to end it. That’s why Katie Hathaway and Shaunna Peard, both University of Maine business students, worked together to take charge and lead the effort in stopping the issue, once and for all.

Together with the Maine Business School Corps, they organized UMaine’s first March Against Domestic violence, which drew a crowd of nearly 200 students and faculty. Led by Dr. Robert Dana and Bananas the Bear, the march swept across the University Mall before ending at the steps of Fogler Library.

At the event, UMaine president Susan Hunter addressed the crowd. “Domestic violence and sexual assault are serious and continuing problems on campuses and in our community,” she said. She discussed efforts by the Obama Administration to combat domestic violence, quoting President Obama in saying, “You are not alone. We have your back. I have your back.”

“No one in this community is alone,” she said of the university community and the Bangor/Orono/Old Town area. “We are very committed to providing a safe community, so together — and I mean it, it takes all of us together to do this — we can make a difference in stopping domestic violence and sexual assault.”

I was in attendance at the event, and spoke with not only its coordinators but also students, and faculty and community members with expertise in women’s issues. All said that solidarity was important; all said that now is the time to move past acknowledging there’s a problem; and all said that now is the time to take action against domestic violence.

And the way to start? Just listen.

Music: “Blue,” Rob Simonsen

Maine prepared for flu season, state CDC director affirms

Originally published Sept. 21, 2014

Orono, ME — Maine is fully prepared for the upcoming flu season as enhanced vaccination formulations aim to prevent spread of the seasonal virus, according to Dr. Sheila Pinette, Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director.

A new quadrivalent form of flu vaccine will be available this year, intent on preventing additional flu cases and flu-like illnesses. The vaccine will contain four flu viruses as opposed to the traditional trivalent option, which only contains three, according to Pinette.

“Maine has selected the quadrivalent option, which vaccinates against H1N1, H3N2 and two strains of influenza B, which had several mutations in March, April and May,” Pinette said.

According to Pinette, the dominant strain involved with the 2013-2014 flu season was influenza A H1N1 – the so-called “swine flu.” But, Pinette says, the late-season increase in mutations of influenza B viruses, for which last year’s vaccine did not protect against, is what caused many additional cases of flu and flu-like illnesses.

This phenomenon – known as antigenic shift – occurs when viruses change their protein structure to the point where the body is unable to recognize the virus and produce infection-fighting antibodies against it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The proteins on the flu virus change a lot, and our body doesn’t have a lot of defense against it,” said Dr. Nathan Bisson of Eastern Maine Medical Center Walk-In Care.

Bisson recommends everyone become vaccinated as soon as possible.

“The shot is a dead virus that gives your body some of the puzzle pieces of what the virus looks like. But it takes a couple of weeks for your body to do that,” Bisson said. “I encourage people to get it as soon as possible.”

The flu causes fever and chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, muscle or body aches and fatigue. It is spread through coughing, sneezing and coming into contact with the droplets produced by these activities, according to the CDC.

The CDC recommends anyone over the age of six months be vaccinated. Vaccinations can be performed at any medical care center, most drug stores and supermarkets. Most insurance companies pay for the cost of vaccination, according to Pinette, and the average cost of injection ranges from 12 to 18 dollars.

But while doctors hope new vaccine formulations will offer increased protection against the flu, the potential severity of this year’s flu season remains a mystery.

“Every year you can’t anticipate it,” Pinette said. “We just have to go forward and be prepared.”

Pinette reassured that Maine has a good network between the CDC, healthcare professionals, hospitals, medical epidemiologists and emergency medical services.

“We’re prepared for it,” she said.

Maine CDC confirms first human EEE case, voices concern

A joint report with Shelby Hartin
Originally published Nov. 7, 2014

ORONO, Maine — On October 10, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the state’s first human case of Eastern equine encephalitis, one of the most severe and deadly mosquito-transmitted diseases in the United States.

The patient, identified as a mature adult of York County, tested positive for the virus on Oct. 9, and is recovering at home, according to a public health alert issued by Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC.

The patient’s name was not made available.

The rare illness often has no effect on those who contract it, but in severe cases sudden onset of headache, high fever, chills and vomiting can take place, which may progress into disorientation, seizures or coma. With a mortality rate of one-third and significant brain damage being the result in survivors of severe cases, EEE remains a grave threat to public health.

While the virus has been found in mosquitoes, birds and some mammals in Maine, this marks the first time a human case has been confirmed in the state. Maine was among the last New England states to avoid a human case, but now the epidemiology of the disease is coming into question as it appears to be moving northward.

Click here for an interactive map plotting confirmed cases of EEE in New England since 2010.

WHAT IS EEE?

EEE is spread to humans and other mammals via infected bridge mosquitoes that feed off multiple forms of hosts, such as birds and mammals. Birds often act as primary hosts for the virus once bitten by an infected mosquito. As other mosquitoes feed off infected birds, they too can carry the virus to mammals, including humans, according to the CDC.

Graphic by Shelby Hartin. Images via Wikimedia Commons.
Graphic by Shelby Hartin. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Only about a third of transmitted viruses manifest into the infection, and of those a third will die. Another third will have lasting neurological effects, and the rest will recover. Some who develop EEE won’t even show symptoms.

The disease has two forms: systemic and encephalitic.

Systemic infection has an abrupt onset and is characterized by flu-like symptoms including chills, fever and a general feeling of being unwell. Systemic infection can last anywhere from one to two weeks if it does not develop into the encephalitic form. The encephalitic form is abrupt in infants, but occurs after several days of systemic infection in older children and adults. Symptoms of encephalitic form include fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions and coma.

Death typically occurs between two to 10 days after onset of symptoms, and those who survive are usually left with mental and physical impairments, from brain dysfunction and intellectual disabilities to personality disorders, seizures and paralysis. Many who develop these impairments die within a few years of development, according to the CDC.

There is no treatment.

Humans are known as dead-end hosts, meaning that they cannot infect any mosquitoes that bite them.

With the first diagnosis of EEE in a Maine resident, the Maine CDC is concerned that numbers will rise in the coming years.

“I think we might identify that the risk is here. It was only a matter of time until we saw a human case,” said Sara Robinson, an epidemiologist with the center’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Program.

Robinson says the time between early to mid-fall is when the risk of contracting the virus is highest, and that those at the highest risk are usually under the age of 15 or over the age of 50.

TRACKING A KILLER

CDC concerns over future transmission of the deadly EEE virus bring attention to the state of research efforts being conducted on Maine’s vector-borne diseases.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension system provides services related to the vector of EEE, the mosquito. The Insect Pests, Ticks and Plant Diseases branch of the extension operates year round and offers diagnostic services to the public, which include plant disease identification, insect and insect injury identification, and nutritional and cultural problem assessment.

Since its inception in 1989, the lab has served over 25,000 citizens of Maine. That number becomes more significant when observing the lab where work is done — a small office barely large enough for one person.

Jim Dill, a pest management specialist at the Cooperative Extension, has done extensive work in this lab with mosquitos that carry EEE. One of his main roles is integrated pest management, which requires him to examine different aspects of management and control of pests and crops in order to reduce the use of pesticides.

James Dill. Alan Bennett, photographer.
James Dill. Alan Bennett, photographer.

Dill’s involvement with EEE began in 2000 after West Nile Virus first made its debut in New York. The abrupt appearance of the virus led to many questions about how the disease erupted and why it hit so quickly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then reached out to resources in Maine with the capabilities of trapping and testing mosquitoes. One of these resources was UMaine’s cooperative extension. Working with other resources in the state, they were able to trap and test mosquitoes.

Dill explained that the lab tested mosquitoes from southern Maine up through Orono to test for WNV. During the testing process, the lab decided to look for other mosquito-borne diseases and it turned out that EEE was present in the testing pool.

“EEE on occasion had been found in Maine, but just in a few birds. So, in this whole process of testing mosquitoes and testing dead birds, we found that there was EEE here in the state,” Dill said.

SPARE SOME CHANGE?

But, after nine years of trapping and testing, funding started to run dry and cases were on the rise — 15 horses were killed by the disease in 2009, a flock of 30 farm-raised pheasants in Lebanon died in 2012, and last year the virus led to the deaths of two horses in Maine.

Since 2009, testing has been focused primarily on more densely populated areas, but only south of Portland. The cooperative extension still has the tools to trap mosquitoes, but focus and funds have shifted to tick research.

Dill explained that knowledge of this disease and how it spreads is limited and that more research is needed to grasp the epidemiology of the disease.

“This is a big enough problem that there were two or three bills in front of legislature last year dealing with the problem.”

Some of these bills included LD1808, titled “An Act To Protect the Public from Mosquito-borne Diseases.” This bill establishes that the Department of Health and Human Services is the lead agency in the State for monitoring for mosquito-borne diseases. It also authorizes the Commissioner of Health and Human Services to declare a mosquito-borne disease a public health threat, among other things.

In addition, LDs 1567, 1568 and 1569 addressed mosquito-control activities, like aircraft spraying, in response to mosquito-borne disease public health threats.

The Nov. 4 ballot also addressed the need for further research in these areas with Question 2, which asked if voters would choose to allocate $8 million in bonds to assist Maine agriculture and protect Maine farms through the creation of an animal and plant disease and insect control facility administered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service.

Funds from Question 2 will expand Maine’s efforts to research deadly vector-borne illnesses north of Augusta. Currently, the only two labs that can regularly test mosquitoes and birds are at Maine Medical Center in Portland and the state lab in Augusta, Dill said. This is important for the state because the Maine CDC does not conduct research, according to Sara Robinson, although — while unable to give a dollar amount — she acknowledged that Maine CDC has money going toward surveillance funding to track infected mosquito pools.

EEE has been detected in 22 mosquito testing pools in York County and an emu in Cumberland County that later died from the virus. Seven mosquito pools collected on Sept. 30 also tested positive for EEE, according to the Maine CDC.

These results, however, only cover a portion of the state.

Dill confirmed that EEE has been found in deer throughout Maine, and chances are high that mosquitoes carry the disease across the state as well. Without necessary funding to confirm suspicions, EEE and its effects remain largely unknown in most of Maine.

 


WHAT NEXT?

The question then remains — what should one do to prevent the spread of this deadly illness? The first step is awareness, which is often lacking in those who are most susceptible to contracting EEE, like athletes.

As the only university in the state to host Division I level athletes, UMaine is home to a myriad of them, from soccer players to runners and everything in between. Although much of their time is spent outdoors, many are unaware of the dangers mosquitoes pose to their health.

As a runner on the cross country team at UMaine, Carolyn Stocker’s job is to be outside, braving the elements and the bugs. Her prevention methods? Nonexistent.

“I usually run outside every day of the week. I actually am really bad about protecting myself from mosquitoes and usually don’t use bug spray because of the smell and fumes. I am somewhat aware of the dangers of mosquitoes but not 100 percent sure of the specifics,” she said.

Stocker added that she was used to being bitten, as were her teammates. The same can be said for players on the UMaine soccer team.

“The soccer fields here at UMaine are surrounded by woods, which are highly populated with mosquitoes,” said Alexandra Abrahams, a UMaine student and member of the women’s soccer team.

“All throughout the summer whenever we’re practicing, girls are getting bitten all the time by mosquitos and I’m sure they’d be terrified as well to know that they could die from those mosquitoes biting them,” she added.

Athletes like Stocker and Abrahams, who are at the highest risk of infection from dangerous mosquito-borne illnesses, bring to light the fact that because there is no treatment, prevention is the only option.

Sara Robinson offered some tips for prevention success.
Wearing repellants is the best thing one can do to prevent contracting the virus, she said. Five repellants are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use in repelling mosquitoes, including those that may carry EEE. They are DEET, picaridin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus – which are approved for use on skin – and permethrin, which is approved for use on clothing only.

Many brands of insect repellants use these compounds in their formulations, and a complete list can be found using the search tool on the EPA’s website.

Robinson further suggested that hikers and campers check screens or mosquito nets on tents for any signs of wear, damage and holes, and make sure they are in good condition. “That’s going to keep mosquitoes out,” she said.

Hikers and campers can invest in bed netting that will provide further protection, as well as wear long sleeves and pants if the weather provides. The CDC also recommends draining artificial sources of standing water where mosquitoes can thrive, such as flower pots and small, inflatable pools.

“For this time of year, it’s basically preventing getting bitten,” Robinson said. “If they can’t get to your skin they aren’t going to be able to bite you.”

Farm to Table

 

 

For 20 years, University of Maine students have been bridging the gap between farm-to-table in their local community. Now, the Black Bear Food Guild — like its ever-changing harvest — continues to grow, supplying fresh, organic vegetables to 65 shareholders from the surrounding towns.

The Guild, as it is casually known, is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that took root in 1994 when sustainable agriculture students wanted to actively engage with their studies and “get their hands dirty,” says Dr. Eric Gallandt, director of the Guild and professor of weed ecology at the university. Now, what started as a mere supplement to the sustainable agriculture curriculum has grown into a focal point of the program.

“It’s an opportunity for students who want to learn how to farm,” Gallandt says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For sustainable agriculture students Lindy Morgan, 28,  and Laura Goldshein, 26, there’s more to it than that. For them, it’s about reaffirming their love for what they do.

“I would say that the significant thing that I’ve gotten out of this experience is finding out whether or not I want to be a farmer for the rest of my life,” Goldshein says. “And the answer is, absolutely, yes.”

Although, they admit, it’s no easy task. The two farmers were set back by the sudden departure of one of their crew in early July. Left to run the entire 3-acre farm for the majority of the summer and now for the fall – working from about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later in the blistering heat – the two worked to establish the farm as certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

And they wouldn’t trade it in for anything else.

“We are actually the only completely student-run CSA in the country. No other schools have this program, not even other land grant universities,” Goldshein says. “It’s just a really special chance to experience things on a smaller scale before sort of taking the leap on your own and starting a farm.”

“They’re making all of the choices,” Gallandt says. “That’s very different from programs at other universities.”

Their hard work does not go unnoticed, however. There is a reciprocal benefit that comes from managing a CSA. The students learn about principles of farm management, soil quality and organic pest control, and the real reward goes out to the community — the shareholders who take stock in the Guild and support its existence. In return for their dedication, they receive healthy, organic vegetables grown right at home: Farm-to-table at its finest.

 

 

 

“There’s something about actually knowing your farmer really well that makes you realize where your food’s coming from, and supporting your community as well as supporting the student program,” Gallandt says.

In addition to growing over 35 varieties of vegetables this past season – including their most popular: cucumbers, tomatoes, summer and winter squash – Morgan and Goldshein sold all of the shares in the farm, mapped out the fields and installed irrigation systems, maintained the Guild’s Facebook page and email accounts and established a record keeping system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All technicalities aside, Morgan and Goldshein love their jobs because they know their work makes people happy.

“They work their asses off all week long and twice a week they have these people coming in with smiling faces and kids,” Gallandt says. “They’re high-motivated to work hard because, no matter what, on Tuesday afternoon there’s a bunch of people coming to pick up stuff.”

And, yes, they admit they’re pretty proud of the work they’ve done.

 

“I was pleasantly surprised that, in spite of it just being the two of us and the weeds being so out of control and various problems with just sort of the farm infrastructure, that we not only made it through but we did a really good job, I would like to think,” Goldshein says, looking out at amber fields as the sun begins to set.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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