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Two more die of mosquito-borne EEE virus in Michigan

Two more die of mosquito-borne EEE virus in Michigan as cases of the disease that kills 30% of victims reach unprecedented levels in the US

  • Michigan health officials confirmed Tuesday that another four people have the mosquito-borne virus Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE)
  • Two of those have died, officials said  
  • One-third of patients with EEE die, but it usually only affects 5-10 people a year
  • This year, Michigan, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey have all seen three or more cases already 
  • No treatments have been discovered, so doctors can only provide supportive therapy 

Two more people have died of the surging mosquito-borne virus, Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) in Michigan and another two cases have been confirmed, the state health department said Tuesday.  

That brings Michigan’s EEE death toll to three so far this year, according to its health department’s weekly update. 

In a typical year, there are only between five and 10 cases of EEE, an untreatable virus that can cause potentially life-threatening brain swelling, in the entire US. 

But, likely fueled by rising temperatures and patterns in bird migrations, there have already been seven human cases in Michigan, 10 in New Jersey, three in Rhode Island, and eight in Massachusetts, where two have died. 

Mosquitoes carry Eastern equine encephalitis, a virus that kills 30% of people that contract it, including two people whose deaths were confirmed this week in Michigan 

Cases are more common on the East Coast of the US, mostly concentrated in Florida.  

EEE thrives in warm swampy areas where standing water provides plentiful food and a fertile breeding ground.  

So mosquitoes proliferate in swampy Florida, bite the birds that spend their winters there, which then migrate back to New England, where native mosquitoes bite them, contract the virus, then bite humans (and other animals). 

It’s not just that there are more mosquitoes. As property becomes more scarce, people move into previously uninhabited areas, including the swampy ones where EEE mosquitoes and birds live.  

‘In the upland swamp areas’ – like parts of Massachusetts – there’s more development in those areas, people are living closer to those wilder areas,’ Dr Thomas Unnasch, a University of South Florida professor of infectious diseases and expert on EEE, told in a recent interview. 

‘I’m a great example. Here in Florida, I live next to a nature conservancy. It’s just beautiful. And it’s a beautiful habitat for EEE – and I paid extra money to live next to that!

And as more parts of the US stay warmer for longer into the year, more of the virus circulates as well. 

The result has been an unprecedented number of horse and human cases of the disease in the US this year. 

The affected states have been spraying insecticide regularly and warning residents to wear DEET insect repellent and watch for signs and symptoms of the infection. 

Symptoms are, at first, like those of flu: high fever, headache, fatigue and nausea or vomiting, usually appearing between four and 10 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito. 

But they can progress to loss of appetite, diarrhea, neck stiffness and dangerous brain-swelling. 

Once the infection reaches the brain, the resulting swelling – encephalitis – can be life threatening, killing up to a third of patients that reach this stage. 

And doctors are relatively helpless to treat it. 

In a hospital setting, patients may be placed on life support and given IV fluids, but antibiotics are useless against viruses, and scientists have yet to discover an anti-viral therapy. 

Earlier this month, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts – which has seen more cases than any other state in the US this year – plead with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to share any research they have on similar viruses, in the hopes this might provide clues to possible EEE treatments. 


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