What threat does EEE virus pose in the Val­ley?

Mos­quito-borne dis­ease is rare but cases have been found in Car­bon and Mon­roe coun­ties


A po­ten­tially deadly mos­quito-borne virus has popped up in the Po­conos and Car­bon County. And the only known hu­man case of it in Penn­syl­va­nia was treated last year at Le­high Val­ley Health Net­work.

While state health of­fi­cials are urg­ing Le­high Val­ley res­i­dents to ed­u­cate them­selves about the eastern equine en­cephali­tis virus, they note that the dis­ease is rare and the like­li­hood of peo­ple in the area con­tract­ing it is low.

The virus, which is also called EEE or Triple E, killed seven peo­ple across the coun­try this year, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion up­date. And a week ago, the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture an­nounced it found an in­fected wild pheas­ant in Mon­roe County and in­fected horses in Car­bon County.

De­spite the news last week that an­i­mals in nearby coun­ties were found in­fected with the virus, that isn’t cause for alarm, state and lo­cal health of­fi­cials say. Colleen Con­nolly, a spokes­woman for the state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion, which tracks in­fected mos­qui­toes, said mos­qui­toes that carry and spread EEE typ­i­cally don’t travel far from their habi­tats.

EEE is an ex­tremely rare but dan­ger­ous virus, trans­mit­ted through mos­quito bites. An av­er­age of seven hu­man cases typ­i­cally are recorded ev­ery year, but this year, 28 cases have been re­ported to the CDC.

While 2019 has had an unusu­ally high num­ber of cases, that hasn’t been true in Penn­syl­va­nia. In the last decade, Penn­syl­va­nia has had one case, in 2018, which was re­ported by Le­high Val­ley Health Net­work, said Dr. Luther Rhodes, the net­work’s chief of hospi­tal epi­demi­ol­ogy. He did not know which county the case came from and the Health Depart­ment does not re­lease in­for­ma­tion on in­di­vid­ual cases.

Most of the cases this year have been from Florida, Mas­sachusetts, New York and North Carolina, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

The symp­toms in­clude a high fever, stiff neck, headache and lack of en­ergy, and typ­i­cally show up three to 10 days af­ter a mos­quito bite. The ill­ness lasts one to two weeks but is more se­ri­ous if the virus af­fects the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem.

Most peo­ple who are bit­ten by an in­fected mos­quito don’t get the virus, but 4-5% of those peo­ple do, the CDC said. And nearly a third of peo­ple who get sick with the in­fec­tion die.

While horses can get vac­ci­nated against the EEE virus, there’s no such vac­cine for peo­ple, Rhodes said.

Older peo­ple, he said, are more likely to get sick from an in­fected mos­quito.

The DEP planned to spray parts of Car­bon County for mos­qui­toes Tues­day but scrap

ped the plan when not enough mos­qui­toes ca­pa­ble of spread­ing the virus were found to war­rant spray­ing. The agency says it will con­tinue mon­i­tor­ing mos­qui­toes in that re­gion.

To pre­vent the dis­ease, health ex­perts sug­gest wear­ing long sleeves, us­ing bug re­pel­lent out­side and dump­ing any stand­ing wa­ter that has ac­cu­mu­lated in yards.

The re­cent in­crease in EEE cases across the coun­try may be due to a com­bi­na­tion of ris­ing preva­lence of the dis­ease and height­ened aware­ness of it that has im­proved re­port­ing of cases, said Vicky Kistler, direc­tor of the Al­len­town Health Bureau.

While some re­searchers point to the the in­creas­ingly warm cli­mate for the rise in dis­eases trans­mit­ted by bugs, Rhodes said that’s mostly spec­u­la­tion.

“It’s not at all clear why,” he said.

How­ever, warm weather gen­er­ally is con­ducive to mos­qui­toes, which go away when the weather cools.

While EEE re­cently cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the coun­try, the threat is greater for more com­mon and equally se­ri­ous dis­eases trans­mit­ted by bugs, such as Lyme dis­ease and West Nile virus, Kistler and Rhodes said.

Last year, 130 peo­ple in Penn­syl­va­nia got sick with the West Nile virus. But this year, only two cases have been re­ported. Like EEE, it is a se­ri­ous dis­ease con­tracted from mos­qui­toes, and it can be pre­vented the same way, Rhodes said.

As with the EEE virus, most peo­ple don’t de­velop symp­toms af­ter get­ting bit­ten by a mos­quito in­fected with West Nile virus. One in 5 who get sick can de­velop headaches, body aches, joint pains, vom­it­ing, di­ar­rhea or rashes. A smaller per­cent­age, 1 in 150 peo­ple, can de­velop se­vere ill­nesses, such as in­flam­ma­tion of the brain or of the mem­brane sur­round­ing the brain and spinal cord.

“Specif­i­cally late af­ter­noon to late morn­ing, that’s when mos­qui­toes that can carry West Nile or EEE most likely to bite,” Rhodes said.

“You can’t get ob­sessed with these kinds of things,” Kistler added, ad­vis­ing peo­ple to take pre­cau­tions but not worry too much about it.

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