Eastern Equine Encephalitis Is Scary But Rare

A Massachusetts woman recently died of eastern equine encephalitis, and health authorities in the area are on the alert. But EEE is an extremely rare disease, and the main thing you need to know is that it’s always a good idea to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

What is EEE?

EEE is a virus that’s transmitted by mosquitoes. Birds are its usual hosts, but occasionally a mosquito will spread the disease to a person, or another animal like a horse. (The virus has “equine” in the name because it was first recognised in horses.)

The virus can cause encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. It is fatal in about 30 per cent of human cases.

How common is it?

This is the good news: EEE is very rare. It’s one of those illnesses that’s so rare that every time somebody dies from it, they make the news. But the U.S. CDC notes that only five to ten cases are reported in the U.S. each year.

Editor’s Note: Wildlife Health Australia states that EEE is extremely rare in Australia, but that there is still potential for it occur.

Who gets it and what are the symptoms?

Since it’s transmitted by mosquitoes, people who spend a lot of time outdoors are most likely to contract the disease. One strategy that U.S. public health officials have used to control the spread of the disease is to close parks at dusk, because that’s when the mosquitoes that spread EEE are most active.

Symptoms start four to ten days after you’re bitten. If you have the systemic form of the disease, symptoms may include fever, chills, malaise, and pain in your muscles and joints. If you have the more dangerous encephalitic form, you would also develop other symptoms that may include irritability, drowsiness, vomiting, convulsions and slipping into a coma.

Many of these symptoms are shared with other diseases, but if you’re seriously ill you should seek medical help, whether you suspect it’s EEE or not. The brain swelling caused by EEE can be fatal within a matter of days, so don’t delay seeking help. There is no cure for EEE (antibiotics won’t help because it’s a virus) but good medical care can support a patient while their body fights off the infection.

How can you avoid catching EEE?

There’s no vaccine for EEE, but since it’s carried by mosquitoes, avoiding mosquito bites is the main thing you should think about to reduce the likelihood of EEE. That includes:

  • Using an effective mosquito repellent

  • Staying indoors from dusk to dawn when mosquitoes are most active

  • Repairing window screens, if needed, so they actually keep mosquitoes out

  • Wearing long sleeves and long pants

  • Draining any standing water in your yard (mosquitoes breed in pools of stagnant water)

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