Recently*, the 11th human case of EEE was confirmed in Massachusetts, and four people have died of the Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus. This is an increase over past years, and the outbreak is causing concern.
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The virus, which falls into the togavirus category, lives in the salivary glands of mosquitos. “It’s transmitted by mosquitoes that are endemic to our area, among other areas. One is called the Culex mosquito, and they are biting at nighttime around dusk in the area of Massachusetts and other surrounding states,” explains Dr. Amy Jaworek, Infectious Disease Specialist at Harrington.
Symptoms & Risk
Not every individual who is bitten by an infected mosquito will develop symptoms. For those who do, the first symptoms—which generally appear three to ten days after the infected mosquito bite—include muscle pain, high fever, and shaking chills.
If progressing to encephalitis, changes in mental status, confusion, weakness, and occasionally seizures may occur. “People then develop brain swelling, and that can become fatal,” cautions Dr. Jaworek. “This is the most serious consequence of the encephalitis.”
Individuals at opposite ends of the age spectrum are affected. Children under two years old and persons over 65 are more prone to develop severe complications and symptomatic disease.
When to Seek Medical Care
Since some of the symptoms are similar to influenza, many infected individuals may not immediately seek medical care. The main indicator that EEE is possible are the mental symptoms—confusion or other neurological changes. “If you are experiencing symptoms, or if you’re witnessing symptoms in a family member, I urge you get yourself or your loved one to the emergency room immediately. Not urgent care. This is a severe virus, with a 33 percent fatality rate,” warns Dr. Jaworek.
An official diagnosis is done by either a spinal tap or blood test.
Unfortunately, outbreaks of EEE cannot be predicted—so risk must be mitigated when they do occur. Aerial and ground spraying has been used, particularly in the communities that are classified as “critical risk.” Currently*, 35 cities and towns across Massachusetts were at critical risk for EEE, 40 at high risk, and 128 at moderate risk.
“The Massachusetts Department of Public Health puts out a map with areas highlighted in red or yellow throughout the state, depending on the current situation. It’s updated pretty regularly, so that can be a good resource for residents,” notes Dr. Jaworek.
There is also no cure for the virus, so it’s important to practice preventative measures such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, using insect repellent, and avoiding the outdoors at dusk and into the nighttime. “If you do get bitten by a mosquito, there is, unfortunately, no treatment for this virus. I would advise you to take note if you have several bites, when that was, and then see your doctor if you develop a high fever or muscle aches in that three-to-ten day window,” stresses Dr. Jaworek.
To listen to our recent Podcast with Dr. Jaworek, click here.
*As of the time this article was published.