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Vivian Viloria-Fisher

Researchers regularly gather at the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor to share ideas about to counteract Lyme Disease.

Lyme disease, the increasingly common tick-borne disease, may soon be preventable. 

Experts from academia, government and industry have been discussing at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Banbury Center the benefits and scientific feasibility of developing a vaccine that would essentially stop the infection in humans. 

The highlights of those discussions are summarized in a new study published Oct. 17 in Clinical Infectious Disease. Its conclusion: 

“We are now positioned at a crossroad where advanced technologies allow for application of new genetic strategies for immunizations, possible identification of new immunogens, and repurpose of proven vaccine candidates not only for humans but also for domestic animals and environmental reservoirs.” 

In laymen’s terms: New techniques are there, it’s creating a lot of excitement and there’s hope. 

The study is the culmination of more than 3 years of meetings held at the lab, where the most promising strategies for counteracting the infection were discussed. 

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted through the bite of an infected tick. Traditionally, vaccines have been used to treat infectious diseases and rely on human antibodies to attack the germ. One of the new vaccines, which might be used in combination with traditional techniques, actually impacts the tick.

“What was discovered several years ago, to everyone’s surprise, a Lyme vaccine worked inside the tick itself and inactivated the Lyme bacteria. Newer vaccines are being designed to disrupt the mechanism for transmission of the Lyme bacteria from tick to human,” said Dr. Steven Schutzer, one of the study’s lead authors. 

Researchers cannot speculate when the vaccines will become publicly available, but they said they feel encouraged that they are in the pipeline with some trials underway.

Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics, such as doxycycline, and is most successfully eradicated with early diagnosis. The only preventative measure to date, the researchers note, is to simply avoid tick bites. That strategy, though, has been ineffective at stopping the disease’s prevalence. Each year, more than 300,000 people are diagnosed with the disease. In Suffolk County, 600 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease, the highest rate in New York State. 

Lyme disease symptoms include fever, fatigue and headache, symptoms that often mimic other illnesses. It is often diagnosed by its characteristic bullseye skin rash, but not all cases present with a rash. Left untreated, the disease can infect the joints, heart and nervous system. Some people suffer from a post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome and have trouble thinking six months after they finish treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Former Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher was recently diagnosed with meningitis, induced she said, by a severe case of Lyme disease. After hearing other people’s stories about how Lyme disease can cause major illnesses, even a heart attack, she said a vaccine would be welcomed. 

During the Cold Spring Harbor meetings, a recognition emerged among participants that an effective vaccine was an important public health tool and the best path to follow to counteract the disease. 

Schutzer emphasized, though, that getting vaccinated for Lyme disease, a noncontagious disease, would be a personal choice, rather than a public health mandate. 

“When the pathogen is highly contagious, vaccines are most effective when a large population is vaccinated, creating herd immunity, and leading to the protection of the individual and of the community,” the researchers state in the study. “A vaccine directed against the causative agent B. burgdorferi, or against the tick vector that transmits this bacterium, will only protect the vaccinated person; thus, in this case, herd immunity does not apply toward protection of the community.” 

Stony Brook University researcher Jorge Benach participated in the meetings and noted Lyme vaccines are currently available for dogs but not appropriate for humans. 

“There’s clearly a need,” he said. “A lot of things need to be considered before an approval of a vaccine.”

One of those factors: 25 percent of ticks carrying the Lyme bacterium also carry other infectious organisms. 

Both researchers said they valued the rare opportunity to commingle, discuss and share expertise about a certain aspect of science under one roof during the Banbury Center’s meetings on Lyme disease.  

Dr. Rebecca Leshan, executive director of the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, is proud that the meetings can impact the wider community. 

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of the small meetings convened at the Banbury Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,” she said. “They provide a truly unique opportunity for experts to engage with counterparts they may never otherwise meet and stimulate new ideas and strategies. And the beautiful Lloyd Harbor setting may provide a bit of extra inspiration for all those who participate.”

The first meetings of the group resulted in improved diagnostics that has already had major effects, with FDA approval of a number of tests. Outcomes from the most recent meetings, she said, continue to set the right course of action. 

Vivian-Viloria-Fisher. File photo by Kyle Barr

By Vivian Viloria-Fisher

I thought I had taken all the right steps to protect myself against tick borne diseases; avoided going onto tall grassy areas without gloves, long white pants and white socks, and I sprayed legs — and shoes — and arms with repellents. All that notwithstanding, I did find more than one tick on me this summer. Again, I followed the prescribed steps and collected the vermin, saved it and saw my doctor, who prescribed a prophylactic dose of doxycycline. After the requisite weeks, I had blood work done which showed no sign of disease.

So, when I was flying home from a visit with our two sons in California and was not able to eat my salad at my layover stop, I was surprised but not concerned. I’d had a very busy week enjoying time with my kids and grandson. I felt very achy but chalked that up to the long drive from Marc’s home in Sebastopol to Dan and Megan’s home in Thousand Oaks. That’s more than 400 miles.

I was very tired the next morning but pushed myself to get up and get ready for the funeral that caused me to shorten my trip. During the Mass, I swung from hot to shivering cold and began to feel lightheaded. I turned to my husband, Stu, and told him that I felt as if my head was exploding in a white flash before my eyes. He helped me to my feet, and we made our way out of the church, quickly hugging my cousins as we passed. We bought a thermometer at a drugstore across the street from the church. It read 103 degrees.

This was Friday, the beginning of a week of fevers rising and falling, no ability to eat, muscle aches, headaches, earache and fatigue. My search for answers included three visits to doctors’ offices and finally, on Thursday, Mather Hospital Emergency Department in Port Jefferson where Dr. Hirsch did not dismiss it as just a virus. I told him I thought I had meningitis. He shook his head and said, “I suspect Lyme.”

My father had meningitis when I was 5 years old. He had continued to work although he was sick with mumps, and the infection spread. I remember the grown ups’ conversations about the tube driven into his head to relieve pressure. That left me with a very vivid but equally inaccurate image of what he endured. I wished something could relieve what I knew was going on in my head.

Stu and I had just watched “Jeopardy!” on Friday evening, and my right eye hurt so much that I decided to go to bed, since I couldn’t read or watch TV. I looked in the mirror as I brought the toothbrush to my mouth and saw that only half my mouth was opening. Off we went to Mather ED.

Within a day it was determined from the spinal fluid that the Lyme disease did cause the meningitis — and the palsy that froze the right side of my face.

I refer to tick borne diseases as the Black Plague of our county. These diseases are not to be taken lightly either by the public who don’t believe it will happen to them or by health providers who don’t consider the possibility of Lyme as often as they should. One can be bitten and walk away free of any infection or one can be bitten, feel safe because blood work shows no infection and find oneself close to death. I was very lucky to have had excellent medical care, both in the hospital and at home. I was discharged with a midline for a 28-day course of intravenous antibiotics and a service that provided a nurse who came to our home once a week and instructed my devoted husband on how to administer the medication when she wasn’t there.

Nobody drilled a hole in my head. Instead, my family, my friends and my community surrounded me with love, care and prayers. I am so grateful.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher and her husband live in East Setauket. She is a former county legislator in the 5th District, and is now chair of the Jefferson’s Ferry board of directors.

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Vivian Viloria-Fisher sitting on her father’s lap in an early 1950s family picture. Photo from Vivian Viloria-Fisher

When Vivian Viloria-Fisher first ran for Suffolk County legislator on the Democratic ticket, during newspaper interviews she felt it was important to talk about her Hispanic heritage.

Holding the accordion, above, in the 1950s is Angel Viloria, father of Vivian-Viloria Fisher. Photo from Vivian-Viloria Fisher

“It was 1999 and there weren’t that many Latinos here at that time, and every time you read about a Latino, they were talking about someone poor or someone who was in trouble, and I wanted to be a role model,” Viloria-Fisher said. “I wanted kids to see that there are successful Latinos in Suffolk County.”

After she was elected, she took things a step further. While she ran the first time only using her married name, due to being registered to vote that way, she said after winning she decided to hyphenate, feeling it was important to include her maiden name because it was part of her identity.

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, the former legislator looked back to her own heritage and was willing to give advice to young Latinos.

More than a former elected official who fought for protections for the environment and immigrants, she is the daughter of a bandleader who was at the forefront of the merengue movement in the United States during the 1950s.

Viloria-Fisher was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in December 1947. At the time, the island’s capital was called Ciudad Trujillo after the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Three months after she was born, her family fled to New York City to escape the tyrant’s regime.

Her father, a merengue bandleader named Angel Viloria, and his family had a music business in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo made himself wealthy by stealing money from different businesses, she said, and when her father spoke up, things weren’t safe for her family.

The Vilorias moved to New York, the birthplace of her mother, Mary. Viloria-Fisher’s mother was a daughter of a Marine of Irish and Scottish descent who was stationed in the Dominican Republic. It was there that he met the former legislator’s grandmother, and they moved to New York. However, when Viloria-Fisher’s grandparents separated, her grandmother moved her children back to the Dominican Republic.

In New York, Viloria-Fisher said her father did everything to earn money from teaching piano lessons, tuning pianos and playing any gigs that came his way.

“He did everything he had to do to make a living which artists have to do,” she said.

Soon after they landed in New York, her father and his band hit it big with hits such as “Palo Bonito (La Cruz)” and “Compadre Pedro Juan.” Angel Viloria y su Conjunto Típico Cibaeño released three albums in two years, while performing in New York City. During the summer months, the band would also play in the Catskills. She said while her father and his group would wear suits when performing in the city, she remembers when they were upstate they would wear the ruffle shirts that many associated with Latin music.

Back on the island of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo wouldn’t let Angel Viloria’s music be played even though he gifted the musician with an accordion before he left, to paint a picture of goodwill. Viloria-Fisher said because money was tight, her father used the accordion throughout his career.

She said she remembers jam sessions in her childhood apartment where a young visitor was Tito Puente, who became known as the “King of Latin Music” with international fame. When she was 6 years old, many merengue and salsa artists held a show for her father at New York City’s Palladium in July of 1954 before he headed to Puerto Rico as a headliner at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan.

“They never thought they would never see him again,” she said.

“I wanted kids to see that there are successful Latinos in Suffolk County.”

— Vivian Viloria-Fisher

 

It was during his trip to Puerto Rico that Angel Viloria died at 41. While the family was told he died of a blood clot, due to his brother being found dead in a river in the Dominican Republic — Trujillo’s calling card — it was believed that Viloria-Fisher’s father was killed by the dictator as well.

“It was really tough,” she said. “There was always a kind of a whispered suspicion that Trujillo had something to do with it.”

After her father’s death, her mother began to work. Due to the nuns at school requiring her and her siblings to speak English, and her mother needing to improve her language skills, her mother insisted they speak only English at home. However, Viloria-Fisher grew up listening to her father’s and other Spanish-language music and developed a talent for speaking foreign languages.

Her ear for languages served her well as she went on to teach English and Spanish in local schools, including Advanced Placement Spanish in the Three Village Central School District for 12 years. She later went on to become chair of the district’s foreign language department. A legacy left behind at Ward Melville High School is the Spanish Honor Society being named the Angel Viloria Chapter.

“I was very proud of that because the name has to qualify as being culturally significant in order to name the chapter after someone,” Viloria-Fisher said.

Today, Viloria-Fisher, who has been married to her husband, Stu, for 36 years, has five children and five grandchildren. Among the photos and mementos she shares with them, including a letter from her father to her mother when he performed in the Catskills, is her dad’s accordion displayed on a shelf in her home. The instrument was pawned many times by her mother, Viloria-Fisher said, whenever money was tight in the early days. However, her mother was always able to buy it back.

Viloria-Fisher served the 5th District in the county legislature from 1999 to 2011 and was deputy presiding officer for six of those years. As the first Latina in a Suffolk County legislature seat, Viloria-Fisher has advice for young Latinas who may want to run for elected office.

“Don’t hide who you are,” she said. “Let people know who you are, but go beyond identity politics.”

Vivian-Viloria-Fisher. File photo by Kyle Barr

By Vivian Viloria-Fisher

New York State lawmakers are moving forward with a number of progressive changes to our election laws. Democrats are to be commended for keeping the promise they made to New Yorkers to make it easier for all of us to exercise our right to vote.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher was a Suffolk County legislator from 1999-2011. Photo from Suffolk County Democratic Committee

But Albany has not yet addressed fusion voting. New York state is only one of eight states where fusion voting occurs. Voters come across fusion voting or cross endorsements when they enter the ballot box and see a candidate’s name on several lines on the ballot. This occurs most often in judicial races: candidate Jane Doe is on the Republican, Democratic, Conservative, Independence, Working Family and possibly other lines. The voter might ask herself, “What difference will my vote make?” Good question, since cross endorsements generally take the choice out of the hands of the voter and into the hands of party leaders.

In 2010 Suffolk County Clerk Judith Pascale (R) and county Comptroller Joseph Sawicki (R) both won their re-elections with 100 percent of the vote. In 2013, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C), county Treasurer Angie Carpenter (R) and Suffolk’s District Attorney Thomas Spota (D)  all achieved remarkable victories by garnering 100 percent of the public’s support. Of course, the support came from the backroom deals that agreed to put the officials’ names on the Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Independence party lines. Pascale repeated this feat in 2014.

Fusion voting created a Suffolk County government in which five of the six countywide positions were held for eight years by individuals who had been selected, not elected. This begs the question as to who was watching the proverbial store when both the treasurer and comptroller were beholden to party bosses or whether justice was being served when both the sheriff and district attorney — who later left office under a cloud — were ordained in backroom deals.

Minor parties gain a disproportionate amount of power by doling out their lines for patronage jobs or other political favors. Most egregious among these is the Independence Party that has no identifiable platform, and whose ranks are filled with people who believe that they have registered as Independent — unaffiliated voters only to later discover that they are part of a party.

Voters are often perplexed as to some discordant alliances reflected on the ballot. How is a Democrat endorsed by the Democratic and Conservative parties? Candidates waffle on important issues that define the basic values of the party in which they are registered in order to get on the line of a third party.

We focus our attention on the corruption and disenfranchisement on the national level, but we should not forget that all politics is local. Because of fusion voting, there is a disproportionate number of Conservative judges in Suffolk County, relative to the number of Conservative party members in the general public. In the 2018 Supreme Court 10th Judicial District race, all seven victors names appeared on the Democratic line: the top three vote getters on the Democratic and Republican lines, the next four on the Democratic, Conservative and Independence lines. Given the challenges to democratic values that our nation faces in the nominations of even more conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is mind boggling to know that local party leaders align the Democratic and Conservative parties on the ballot of the 10th Judicial District.

I have voiced my concerns about cross endorsements for many years, but now is the moment that leaders and elected officials must be held accountable and must be pressured to put an end to this deceptive practice. Let your members on the New York State Assembly and Senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) know that fusion voting is contrary to our democracy’s basic tenet of a citizen’s right to vote.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher was a Suffolk County legislator 1999-2011. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018 in the Democratic primary for the 1st District.

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Last week we had the five Democrats vying for a spot on the ballot to represent New York’s 1st Congressional District against U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) at TBR News Media’s Setauket office for a debate-style discussion. Traditionally, this is an exercise we do every fall for each of the various races for local political offices. We write about the discussions and endorse a candidate, and we do not traditionally do this for primaries. However, this particular race at this particular time in national politics felt like an important moment to fully embrace. We are witnessing a presidential administration that both sides can at least agree on calling, if nothing else, virtually unprecedented.

This is noteworthy here and now because the district is represented by a congressman who is taking an enormous political risk by routinely doubling and tripling down on even the most unprecedented behaviors and policies that have been displayed and put forth by President Donald Trump (R). A byproduct of being a chief congressional defender of this president is that a political campaign through a long hot summer with a Democrat stockpiled with endless juicy campaign content like: “Trump and Zeldin wanted to take your health care away and let Paul Ryan raise your taxes,” awaits.

Full disclosure: We have not yet had Zeldin at our office for an extended, far-ranging discussion, as we do periodically, in 2018. A memorable quote from his last visit was, “I’m no one’s proxy.”

We intend to invite the congressman in for a discussion again in the near future, ahead of a one-on-one debate with the primary winner this fall. In the meantime, his two Twitter accounts should be examined —
@RepLeeZeldin and @LeeZeldin — and conclusions drawn. For a congressman who has been roundly criticized for declining to hold what his critics would define as the proper number of in-person, no-holds-barred town halls, his statements on Twitter can sometimes be the best we’ve got.

What he chooses to discuss on Twitter, and how it is received, has become of interest to us. A calculation Zeldin is likely to be making currently, if retweets and likes are to be believed is rabble-rousing about Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Russia and general identity politics sells.

While our organization is not endorsing a primary candidate, we will offer a few thoughts that registered NY-1 Democrats should know come June 26. They will have their choice of five, clear-headed, issue-driven candidates who are decidedly left of Hillary Clinton (D) and a few strides to the right of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) on the political spectrum, but not much. They each offer unique and interesting political challenges for Zeldin, especially should he choose to embrace Trumpism and identity politics as his campaign motif.

Kate Browning lives two miles from the incumbent on the South Shore, and insisted she knows what it takes to make a dent in Zeldin’s base, in addition to touting her experience in the Suffolk County Legislature.

Elaine DiMasi is a scientist from Brookhaven National Lab, who we imagine would be difficult to debate on a topic like, say, “clean coal.”

Perry Gershon can ironically sell a similar background to Trump: a political outsider from the private sector — commercial lending and a small business owner — running on change, with the most money of any of the candidates, which largely comes from his own pocket.

David Pechefsky boasts legitimate domestic policy experience as a longtime New York City Council staffer, though he has not personally held political office. He also possesses a legitimate foreign policy background, having served as an adviser to foreign governments.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher has a solid blend of track record, depth of experience, name recognition from her years in the county Legislature and laser focus on the few issues we could easily see being the deciding factors come November: health care (especially regarding reproductive/women’s health care rights), gun control and immigration.

We will continue tracking this race through November and will update you with the primary results come the end of June. We hope you will reach out to us with your thoughts and feelings about the challengers and the race, too.

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All Souls Episcopal Church in Stony Brook will host a poetry reading April 14. Photo from All Souls Episcopal Church

Two familiar faces in the Three Village area are ready to share their creative sides with their fellow residents.

Former Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher and Emma S. Clark Memorial Library’s librarian Carolyn Emerson will be the featured poets at All Souls Episcopal Church’s Second Saturdays Poetry Reading April 14 in Stony Brook.

Former Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher is one of the featured poet readers at the Second Saturdays Poetry Reading at All Souls Episcopal Church in Stony Brook April 14. Photo from All Souls Episcopal Church

While politics and poetry may seem part of two different worlds, Viloria-Fisher said she believes reading fiction of any kind helps a person develop empathy, something she feels is essential for an elected official to have.

“Literature is an avenue to receive and to give, and that’s what art does,” she said. “It expresses what you’re feeling, and I think that you’re able to express that when you have empathy for the feelings of others.”

Viloria-Fisher served six full terms as Suffolk County legislator and was deputy presiding officer for six years. She currently is campaigning to be on the ticket for the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District. Before embarking on a political career, she taught English and Spanish in local schools, including Advanced Placement Spanish in the Three Village Central School District. She later went on to become chair of the district’s foreign language department.

Despite two busy careers, she said poetry has been part of her life for as long as she can remember, writing for herself and special events.

“I love to capture moments and feeling in poetry,” Viloria-Fisher said, adding that she prefers her poems to rhyme, and she feels imagery, metaphors, cadence and similes are important in the genre.

The former legislator said she hopes attendees at the April 14 reading will appreciate seeing a different side of her.

“I think people see me a little bit more in terms of social justice and science, and I want them to see the artist in me as well,” she said.

For Emerson, her job allows her to show a bit more creativity on a regular basis, she said. She is involved with poetry readings, literary programs and writing workshops at the library. The librarian said she’s a lifelong lover of literature and has been writing poetry since fifth grade.

“I love the compact form of poetry,” Emerson said. “My parents were members of a poetry group in Miami, which I occasionally attended, and my father sometimes recited lines of poetry at the dinner table, so I grew up having a lot of exposure to poetry.”

Emerson, who has been a featured reader at Suffolk County Community College, said her poetry tends to be nature oriented.

Librarian Carolyn Emerson is one of the featured poet readers at the Second Saturdays Poetry Reading at All Souls Episcopal Church in Stony Brook April 14. Photo from All Souls Episcopal Church

“I like to observe nature, and I feel that I can use it as a metaphor,” she said.

The librarian’s poems have appeared in several publications, including Long Island Quarterly and Long Island Botanical Society Newsletter. Emerson is the founder of the Euterpe Poetry Group, and in 2007, she was a semifinalist for The Paumanok Poetry Award. She is currently working on a manuscript about her experiences searching for her birth mother.

The librarian said she has attended the Second Saturdays Poetry Readings at the church in the past and has read a few of her pieces during the open reading portion.

“It’s a wonderful space for poetry,” Emerson said. “It’s intimate and just a lovely, serene space to listen to poetry.”

All Souls Episcopal Church is located at 61 Main St., Stony Brook. The Second Saturdays Poetry Reading will be held Saturday, April 14, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is hosted by Suffolk County Poet Laureate Gladys Henderson. An open reading will follow the intermission, and all are welcome to read their own work or that of another. For more details, call 631-655-7798.