CADILLAC — Wexford County has only rarely seen cases of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). The last case was in 2017, a horse.
But downstate, counties are experiencing an outbreak—and instead of just horses and birds, the mostquito-borne virus is hitting humans as well. Three people have died.
“Michigan is currently experiencing its worst Eastern Equine Encephalitis outbreak in more than a decade,‘ said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive and chief deputy for health. “The ongoing cases reported in humans and animals and the severity of this disease illustrate the importance of taking precautions against mosquito bites.‘
Still, Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director of District Health Department No. 10 says there's not much concern the virus will reach humans in Wexford County.
Even with a summer that may linger, keeping mosquitoes alive longer, health and bug experts aren't terribly worried about Wexford County.
While humans and horses can die after catching EEE from a mosquito, it's birds that actually carry enough of the virus to spread the disease, Morse explained.
And birds survive the winter—so a longer mosquito season doesn't make much difference, according to Howard Russell, an insect diagnostician at Michigan State University.
If a mosquito bites a sick horse and then bites you, you won't catch EEE. It's only when mosquitoes bite a bird with EEE that the insects can transmit the virus to people and animals.
People who spend a lot of time around horses are not at greater risk of getting sick, Morse said.
Only certain kinds of mosquitoes bite birds, humans and horses, Morse said.
Those mosquitoes are probably in Wexford County, but the pathogen isn't, Russell said.
While EEE can be deadly, the odds are very small.
Only a very small percentage show any symptoms at all, and only 1% have neurological symptoms, like encephalitis or meningitis (swelling of the brain or surrounding tissues), according to Dr. Morse.
"It kind of takes the perfect storm of situations for somebody to get sick,‘ Morse said.
But if you do experience neurological symptoms from EEE, the odds are considerably worse. One-third die.
That's why the MDHHS is calling on people to avoid mosquito bites.
Until the first frost, health experts are advising families to do their best to avoid mosquito bites. In the counties where there have been EEE cases, MDHHS says local officials should consider "postponing, rescheduling or canceling outdoor activities occurring at or after dusk, particularly activities that involve children. This would include events such as late evening sports practices or games or outdoor music practices."
This year, there’ve been animal cases in Barry, Cass, Genesee, Kalamazoo, Lapeer, Saint Joseph and Van Buren Counties. Humans have caught EEE in Calhoun, Barry, Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Berrien and Cass counties.
The MDHHS had the following advice to avoid mosquito bites:
Apply insect repellents that contain the active ingredient DEET, or other U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-registered product to exposed skin or clothing, and always follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.
Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors. Apply insect repellent to clothing to help prevent bites.
Maintain window and door screening to help keep mosquitoes outside.
Empty water from mosquito breeding sites around the home, such as buckets, unused kiddie pools, old tires or similar sites where mosquitoes may lay eggs.
Use nets and/or fans over outdoor eating areas.
Signs of EEE include the sudden onset of fever, chills, body and joint aches which can progress to a severe encephalitis, resulting in headache, disorientation, tremors, seizures and paralysis. Permanent brain damage, coma and death may also occur in some cases. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should visit their physician’s office.