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CUMBERLAND — Although a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes has killed several horses in recent weeks in five southern Maine counties, organizers at the Cumberland County Fair are taking precautions to make fairgoers as safe as possible when the event begins this weekend.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Sept. 15 that the horses killed by Eastern equine encephalitis are evidence of the presence of mosquitoes infected with the rare but potentially severe virus, which also poses a risk to people. A 3-year-old girl in Candia, N.H., last week was confirmed with EEE.
“We established some policies two years ago regarding that,” Bruce Flanigan, Cumberland County Fair president, said on Monday. “All of the horses are checked and have to be vaccinated. Any horse that comes onto the grounds has to have been vaccinated before that. We’ve had that policy on the grounds because of our racehorses and so forth.”
While the virus is a concern, he added, “we believe we’ve put the safeguards in place to handle that.”
Flanigan also said the fair has portable hand washing stations located near the horse barns, “and if (people) go in and have contact with those animals, we’re recommending that when they come out of those barn areas, to immediately wash their hands with soap and water and make sure that they’re clean.”
The Maine CDC states that the risk of contracting the disease from one mosquito bite is minuscule, since any single mosquito is not likely to be infected. It also states that horses infected with the virus do not pose a risk to human health.
Still, the Maine CDC points out that the risk is more geographically widespread than thought previously and that the risk is greatest from dusk to dawn and when temperatures are higher than 50 degrees, and particularly more than 60 degrees. The risk is also expected to continue into next year.
“Anytime you have something like that, it is a concern,” Flanigan said. “And we’ll certainly be watching it very closely. But we hope that we’ve got everything in place to make it a safe fair for everybody.”
Dr. Don Hoenig, state veterinarian at the Maine Department of Agriculture, said on Monday that people bringing their horses to fairs have been encouraged to be up to date on the horses’ vaccinations.
“This is a pretty simple message to horse owners all over the state, and not just the fairs, but particularly in these areas where we have had some increased number of cases,” he said.
Hoenig said three fairs within areas of virus cases – Cumberland, Fryeburg and Common Ground – have received the latest health alert information from the Maine CDC.
“We’ve been putting that message out for weeks, ever since we got the first case,” Hoenig said. “And I think there’s a high level of awareness among horse owners that they really ought to take a look at … the immunization status of their horses and consult with their veterinarian, or this vaccine is readily available over the counter, so people can administer it themselves.”
He said the vaccine is only about $8 per dose.
The 138th annual fair runs Sunday, Sept. 27, through Saturday, Oct. 3, offering the usual array of events that reflect the area’s agricultural heritage. It draws a average attendance of 50,000 to 60,000 each year.
For people planning to attend the fair this year, organizers are making the event more economical.
In prior years, admission prices had included a $2 fee for children ages 10-12, while younger ones got in for no charge, Flanigan explained on Saturday. This year, children 12 and younger will be admitted for free.
Fairgoers can also obtain week-long fair passes at Cole Farms in Gray, Sunrise Printing in Windham and at the fair office, Flanigan said. If people buy the $35 pass prior to the fair, they will also receive the a parking pass (normally $5).
The fair this year has also added another “bracelet day” for participants, offering one price to ride all rides an unlimited number of times for that day.
“We had that on Monday and Wednesday, and this year we’ve added a third day, on Thursday,” Flanigan explained. “It’s a good deal.”
Flanigan noted that attendance has been down at some fairs.
“Some of it’s been weather-related, some of it I’m sure can be attributed to the economy,” he said. “But our philosophy has been right from the beginning that we’ll put together the best program we can put together, and roll it out there, and I believe that, particularly if we get decent weather, I think we’ll be in good shape. How much of a hit we’ll take is just very hard to say. We’re hoping, obviously, that our attendance is right about normal.”
Maine Agricultural Day, to be held Monday, Sept. 28, has been revitalized, Flanigan said. He added that between 2,000 and 2,500 school children will attend the fair that morning to take an educational tour with the exhibition hall superintendent.
“It’s basically a program that was created here, and we just work on it and try to enhance it every year,” Flanigan said.
Among the highlights of opening day is the State of Maine Pumpkin Contest, which takes place in front of the dairy barn at 10 a.m. Charlie Lopresti and Sarah Long from WGME Channel 13 will serve as two of the judges in the exhibition hall.
A new event is the Rave X freestyle snowmobile jumping event, which takes place in front of the grandstand at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30.
Comedy hypnotist Alan Sands will perform on three days: Monday at 3 p.m., Tuesday at 4 p.m. and Wednesday at 4 p.m., on the main stage in front of the exhibition hall.
A tractor pull will be held in front of the grandstand at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, and a truck pull will follow at the same time and place the next night.
“We certainly encourage people to come out and look, and I think they’ll certainly enjoy the program that we’ve put together,” Flanigan said, “and I think it’ll be a good time.”
Admission is $9 on Sunday, Friday and Saturday for people 13 and older; it is $7 on Monday through Thursday.
Go to cumberlandfair.com for a full schedule of events.
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, while many people infected with Eastern equine encephalitis show no apparent illness, those developing symptoms tend to do so three to 10 days following an infected mosquito’s bite. Symptoms can be as minor as mild flu-like illness, or as major as seizures, coma and death. Approximately a third of people with symptoms of the virus will die, while about half of the survivors with the virus will have permanent disabilities, according to the Maine CDC.
The virus has no known effective treatment for humans, the Maine CDC states; while there is a virus vaccine for horses, there is none available for humans.
The encephalitis was first found in Maine four years ago among horses, mosquitoes and birds in Cumberland and York counties. Last fall a man who spent time in Cumberland County in a horse in York County died from the disease.
The Maine CDC states that people at most risk for infection are those who live, work and visit wetlands or areas identified with the virus, while people older than 50 and younger than 15 appear to be the most susceptible to the disease effects.
Among methods the Maine CDC recommends for virus protection are the use of insect repellent; covering up with long-sleeve shirts, pants and socks; placing mosquito netting over infant carriers when outside; cleaning up unnecessary standing water around the yard; repairing window screens; vaccinating horses, and limiting or rescheduling outdoor group activities in the evening so that those involved are able to be inside an hour before sunset, unless the temperature at dusk is below 50 degrees.
Log onto the Maine CDC Web site, maine.gov/dhhs/boh, for more information.