KEENE, N.H. – The mosquito-borne virus has killed nine people in the United States since 1999 and sickened dozens others. Birds infected with the virus have been found in about a half-dozen states, including seven New Hampshire.
While state officials concentrate prevention efforts in cities like Manchester and Nashua, smaller towns in western New Hampshire are doing what they can to protect themselves.
Swanzey voters approved a 20 percent increase in the town's health and welfare budget to cover a virus-prevention program that will cost nearly $20,000 and the Keene City Council recently approved a $6,500 program.
Meanwhile, Chesterfield officials are looking at alternatives to spending money on prevention programs this year, and Peterborough selectman are developing a plan that may involve public funds.
The state is concentrating on cities because research has shown the virus to be more prevalent in urban areas, said Dr. Jose Montero, chief of disease control for New Hampshire.
For rural areas, the state is emphasizing education about preventing mosquito growth by eliminating the standing water where the bugs breed -- old tires, birdbaths, home gutters.
It also recommends communities take steps to locate mosquito breeding grounds, monitor adult bug populations, and obtain permits to spray insecticides.
"Our local authorities have to look at this seriously and consider their risk," Montero said.
Robert DeRocher, health officer in Swanzey and sanitarian in Keene, has been doing just that. Armed with information sheets about the virus, DeRocher has spoken with officials in Chesterfield, Fitzwilliam, Keene and Peterborough, and has tried to talk to other communities about the virus.
His efforts persuaded Swanzey voters to approve nearly $20,000 for a prevention program that includes a mosquito larvae survey, a surveillance program and a one-year spraying permit.
Peterborough officials are expected to decide on a course of action this month, but one official said he hopes the town will proceed cautiously.
"People are so concerned and panicked that they want something to be done. And, that puts tremendous pressure on officials to show they're doing something," said Peter Ryner, the town's community development director.
Keene councilors rejected a $40,000 prevention program in favor of a scaled-back program that calls for locating mosquito breeding spots but not monitoring the mosquito population as fully as the town's health officer would like.
"I'll be holding my breath for next summer," said Medard Kopczynski. "If you know that the populations are building up and if you have an early warning that the disease is out there, it at least gives you the opportunity to deal with it, rather than deal with it after it's a crisis."