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Mosquitoes spread a rare, brain-infecting virus in Florida



The Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus (in red), which can be seen enlarged in the salivary gland tissue of an infected mosquito. [19659003] Image: Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield (CDC)

One of the most dangerous but thankfully rare mosquito diseases has been rediscovered, according to health officials in Florida. According to a public referral issued this month by the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, the Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEEV) virus was found in the state. The virus can cause serious brain damage that can kill up to a third of human victims.

EEEV can be transmitted by several mosquito species, including those that colonize the warmer areas of the US EEEV-infected individuals develop either no or only flu-like symptoms, and about 5 percent suffer from severe brain swelling (titular encephalitis). This swelling can then lead to headache, drowsiness, convulsions and coma, with death already occurring two days after onset of symptoms. And even if you're lucky enough to survive that experience, you'll probably have lifelong neurological impairments.

The salvation is that EEEV seldom comes in contact with humans. Its primary vector species (the bug that spreads diseases) lives in marshy areas that are not near cities. Humans – and, ironically, horses – are actually a dead end for the virus, as it does not multiply enough in our bodies so that other mosquitoes absorb it again and keep the transmission chain going. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of seven cases of EEEV per year are diagnosed in the US. In 2018, only six were diagnosed.

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Still, Florida is one of the states that EEEV is known to be in, along with Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina. Health authorities and researchers in the US often use chicken coops as a canary in the coal mine to fight mosquitoes like EEEV and West Nile virus, and bring them to endemic areas where mosquitoes like to frequent, and test their blood regularly. According to the health department, the virus was detected in these so-called sentinel birds.

"Several sentinel chickens in the same herd have found positive affection with Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus (EEEV)," the report said. "The risk of transmission to humans has increased."

There is nothing here that could panic immediately. Diseases such as EEEV and West Nile – currently the most common mosquito disease in the US – will undoubtedly become more common in the context of climate change. There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine for EEEV. Like many other things that are affected by climate change, this terrible, if rare, disease can cause more harm to people in the not too distant future.

For those who want to reduce the risk of mosquito bites, you should use repellents on yourself and your clothes (according to health officials, these are repellents made with DEET, picaridine, lemon eucalyptus oil, Para-Menthan diol, and IR3535 effective). People who work in areas where mosquitoes are always present may also benefit from wearing long pants and sleeves. Eliminating standing water sources outside your home and maintaining a clean swimming pool will also help.


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