A man in Massachusetts has slipped into a coma after contracting the rare, life-threatening Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus, according to his family.
The virus either comes on like a sudden, intense cold, then disappears altogether, or it it comes on more slowly, but severely, causing diarrhea, vomiting, headache, loss of appetite and, as was the case for the over-60-year-old man, coma.
Health department officials have not identified the man aside from giving an approximate age and the fact that he lives in Plymouth county but Tess Hiller Hedblom, from Rochester, Massachusetts, posted to Facebook about her father’s diagnosis.
Between 30 and 50 percent of people that contract the rare bug-borne disease don’t survive it, putting Massachusetts on high alert, and its cousin, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis (VEE), is one of the World Health Organization’s top priority viruses.
A Massachusetts man fell into a coma after he was bitten by a mosquito and contracted the rare disease, EEE, a life-threatening brain-swelling condition that strikes those bitten by the infected bugs in the Eastern US. It’s rare, but experts worry it may become more common
‘The news is both shocking and heartbreaking,’ she wrote.
Tess and her family have no idea where or when her father was bitten, because for most of us it’s such an innocuous occurrence, we’d never think to make mental note of it.
There are only about six cases of the brain-swelling illness in the US on average – but as the planet warms, mosquito-borne diseases are a growing risk, especially on the East Coast, where mosquitoes that carry EEE live.
‘Today’s news is evidence of the significant risk from EEE and we are asking residents to take this risk very seriously,’ said Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Dr Monica Bharel, MD.
‘We will continue to monitor this situation and the impacted communities.’
At least over the course of the last decade, there have been more cases of EEE in Florida than any other state.
But Massachusetts comes in a close second.
Between 2009 and 2018, Florida has seen 13 cases of EEE. Massachusetts has seen 10.
And only one state West of the Mississippi River – Montana – has had a single case of the virus in the same time period.
WHERE EEE THRIVES AND WHY IT’S STRIKING MORE HUMANS NOW
EEE makes its home base in Florida, where the climate and wetlands make a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes that carry EEE.
Though the virus is named for horses, the main carriers of EEE are bugs that feed almost exclusively on birds.
Bitten birds then migrate North with EEE as their passengers. Many spend their summers in Massachusetts’s rural or once-rural areas.
There, the omnivores of the mosquito family bite the infected birds, get themselves infected too, and will go on to infect whatever their next prey is.
Most of the time they bite horses, chickens or other animals. On rare occasions though, they bite humans.
‘We’re a fatal endpoint – and vice versa,’ Dr Thomas Unnasch, a University of South Florida professor of infectious diseases and expert on EEE, told DailyMail.com.
‘There’s no accidental pressure to adapt to us, so the virus less pathogenic….We just end up dead and so does the virus.’
Between 35 and 60 percent of people who get EEE die of the virus, which means that humans aren’t a terribly advantageous target for the virus.
But humans are unintentionally offering themselves up to EEE-infected mosquitoes.
‘In the upland swamp areas’ – like parts of Massachusetts – there’s more development in those areas, people are living closer to those wilder areas,’ says Dr Unnasch.
‘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!’
There are between five and 10 cases of EEE reported in the US each year – but as winters grow warmer, the disease may become more common, experts warn
WINTER WON’T KILL OFF DISEASE-CARRYING BUGS FOR US ANY MORE
Not only are humans moving in closer to EEE-infected mosquitoes’ habitats, those habitats are getting more hospitable.
It used to be that, although birds carrying the virus migrate to the North, the winter would be harsh enough to kill off the mosquitoes and other animals that carry it.
‘But there’s been a lot of [virus] activity over the last three to five years, I think, because the winters are getting less cold and less severe, so the virus can over-winter year-to-year,’ Dr Unnasch says.
And when it does strike a human, it can strike deep, infecting the brain stem.
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM’S ATTEMPT TO BEAT EEE MIGHT MAKE IT WORSE
‘When you get infected, the immune system ramps right up, but the trouble is that the immune system is really a blunt instrument,’ says Dr Unnasch.
‘The inflammatory response damages the nervous system and you end up dead.
So the mechanism by which the body is trying to fight off the virus is actually just redoubling the attack on the nervous system.
All that swelling can be deadly, land people in a coma and, even if they do wake up, they are likely to have lifelong brain damage.
EEE doesn’t seem to strike immunocompromised people any more often than others, but it does attack older and very young people.
There’s no vaccine and little motivation to make one because, despite its high death rate among the infected, the total number of cases is so low.
The changing climate, its deadly nature and the lack of treatment has propelled EEE onto the list of the World Health Organization’s top 37 viruses to watch in 2019.
And Florida and nine communities of Massachusetts are considered at the epicenter, at critical risk: Carver, Lakeville, Marion, Middleborough, Rochester, and Wareham in Plymouth County and Acushnet, Freetown, and New Bedford in Bristol County.
The state also started spraying a pesticide on August 8, and will continue to do so through the weekend to try to kill off some of the disease-carrying bugs, the health department said.
To keep from being bitten, avoid being out side at dawn and dusk especially in swampy areas, and always wear plenty of bug repellent that contains DEET.