By LAURA AUGENBRAUN | UConn Journalism
January 18, 2022
Evan White was in his second to last lacrosse season at Foran High School in Milford, Connecticut in spring of 2019, when suddenly his team started hearing rumors of their games being rescheduled and even canceled.
“It was actually really scary because we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” White said.
While cancellations and shutdowns have become commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, prior to March 2020 game cancellations were rare. But an unusually high amount of mosquitoes in Connecticut testing positive for Eastern Equine Encephalitis — more commonly known as triple E — had altered the 2019 spring and fall sports seasons.
Triple E is an extremely rare but highly fatal disease that is transferred from mosquitoes to humans. In Connecticut in 2019, 122 mosquitoes tested positive for carrying the disease, and four people contracted EEE. Out of those four people, three died.
“I remember it getting warmer out and hearing about it, and then I remember traveling on the highway and there was a sign that said “Warning, EEE. Dawn to Dusk Watch” and I just remember thinking wow, this is actually kind of crazy,” White said.
Games originally scheduled for 7 p.m. were rescheduled for 4 p.m. so athletes and spectators would not be out at dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
Now scientists have begun to research whether the increased number of mosquitoes seen in 2019 may be the new normal as climate change continues to alter the state our earth is in.
“I think the big concerns when we look at mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases are going to be things like the changes that are occurring due to climate change, globalization, and due to environmental deforestation,” Doctor Philip Armstrong, Virologist and Medical Entomologist at the Center for Vector Biology and Zoonotic Diseases in New Haven, said.
Due to human-induced climate change, New England’s temperature is expected to rise, further increasing the mosquito population and elongating the mosquito season into the fall and winter months. Armstrong said the mosquito population has already increased 40% over the last 20 years, with many new types of the insect that once were found only in the South, now traveling north.
“It all comes down to climate change. We’re seeing these more extreme changes happening, and overall things will get warmer, but we’re going to see both extreme hot and cold and also more extreme precipitation, especially here in the Northeast,” Dr. Talbot Andrews, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut said. Andrews’ online biography notes her work focuses on “how institutions, public policy, and the physical environment shape preferences and behavior related to climate change.”
“We’re seeing longer summers and hotter summers, and it’s not like the winters overall get colder, it’s that we get more of these things like the bomb cyclone. So you get these short weeks where we just get crazy snow, but overall the winters will get shorter,” Andrews said.
The Northeast will also endure more disastrous weather events that bring large amounts of rainfall when the weather is warmer. More rainfall brings more standing water. The combination of this, along with warmer temperatures that linger further into the colder months, is why researchers are documenting more mosquitoes.
“Mosquitoes as a group are very, very good at exploiting disturbed habitats and disturbance. They have a boom and bust life cycle and they sort of take advantage of little temporary pools of water that we create for them, so they’re really quite adaptable,” Armstrong said.
The increase in mosquitoes also raises the concern of seeing more infections of mosquito-borne illnesses in the human population. In the Northeast those diseases are Triple E, West Nile Virus, and some Yellow Fever cases.
To try to prevent infections, scientists like Armstrong watch weather conditions and constantly test mosquitoes in certain areas for these diseases. Once it is confirmed that there are cases of a virus in a certain area, they begin to notify the public.
“If we have evidence that it is heading in that direction, we’ll continue to do more public health messaging and we’ll work with the local health districts and they will start to consider other measures like shutting down parks, banning overnight camping in sites that are at risk, curtailing outdoor activities based on the risk,” Armstrong said.
A last resort effort, if cases begin to increase significantly, is spraying the heavily infected areas with chemicals.
Limiting outdoor activity sounds similar to the precautionary measures and quarantine periods imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to both Armstrong and Andrews, mosquito-borne diseases do not have the ability to create a wide spread pandemic.
“With these diseases, they’re what we call ‘zoonotic infections,’ so that means that these are maintained in nature outside of human population. So with West Nile virus and Triple E virus, birds are actually the carrier of the virus, they’re the source of infecting mosquitoes, so it’s maintained in this mosquito-bird cycle, and occasionally a mosquito that normally feeds on birds will feed on a person and they get infected, but that virus, there’s no subsequent contagion to another person, we’re a dead end host. So that changes things a lot. That’s a big, important distinction to make,” Armstrong said.
Although these diseases do not have the contagion similar to that of COVID-19, there is still cause for concern that may keep people indoors as mosquitoes increase. During White’s last lacrosse games, he and his teammates noticed a decrease in spectators even after the games were rescheduled.
“My team was never mad about getting the games moved, but we definitely saw a loss of older, usual spectators,” White said, his