If you live in the North Eastern United States, specifically Michigan or Massachusetts, you may have heard of Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus or EEEV for short. If you haven’t, you likely will since the disease has been making headlines as another piece of the saga that the year 2020 has become.
EEEV is a deadly illness transmitted by mosquitoes that began making headlines last year when nearly a dozen people died after being bitten by an infected insect . Experts have already been gearing up for this year’s mosquito season for a while now, but the question is- should you be worried?
What is Eastern Equine Encephalitis?
EEEV is what’s called an arbovirus, which is a virus that is spread by a mosquito or other arthropod. West Nile is another example of an arbovirus . Found predominantly in the Northeastern United States, along the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast, it is a rare but extremely fatal infection that causes encephalitis (inflammation) of the brain .
Anyone can be infected with EEEV, however people over the age of fifty and younger than fifteen are the most likely to develop a severe case of the virus if they are infected. It cannot be spread from person to person, or from animal to person- only through the bite of an infected mosquito.
How is EEEV Spread?
EEEV operates much in the same way as the West Nile virus. It first infects mosquitoes, which then feed on birds and infect them in the process. Uninfected mosquitoes then feed on the infected birds, and the virus begins to spread, a process known as the amplification cycle .
The mosquitoes that are initially infected with EEEV feed almost exclusively on birds, and cannot fly very far from where they live. Other mosquitoes, however, that feed off of birds and other mammals (like humans) can become infected, causing the virus to spill out into a greater area .
What are the Symptoms of Eastern Encephalitis?
Symptoms will typically begin to develop four to ten days after an individual is infected by a mosquito. EEEV can result in a systemic fever or neurological disease, including meningitis (when the membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord become infected), or encephalitis (a brain infection) .
If the central nervous system is not affected, most people recover from the disease in one or two weeks. Signs of neurological disease include fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, behavioral changes, drowsiness, and coma. In older children and adults, this could occur after several days of systemic illness .
About one third of all people who get encephalitis from EEEV die, and those who do not are often left with permanent brain damage, intellectual impairment, personality disorders, seizures, paralysis, and cranial nerve dysfunction .
Currently, there is no vaccine or treatment specific to EEV. Anyone who suspects they may have the virus should seek medical care immediately, where supportive treatment can be provided .
Prevention is the Best Medicine
Since there is no vaccine or treatment available, the best way to combat the virus is to prevent it altogether, which means avoiding mosquito bites, especially if you live in a higher-risk area. The following are ways you can protect yourself:
- Wear long sleeves, and tuck your pants into your socks and shirts into your pants when you’re outdoors at dusk or dawn.
- If you know you’re heading into a mosquito-infested area, spray yourself liberally with DEET-containing bug repellent. (Remember to wash the repellent off once you return indoors)
- Biopesticide or natural insect repellents work as well .
- If possible, reduce or remove any standing water on your property to discourage mosquitoes.
- Don’t leave anything on your property that could provide a home for mosquitoes, like tin cans, plastic containers, or old tires.
- Make sure your roof gutters drain properly, and be sure to clean them in the spring and the fall.
- Clean and chlorinate swimming pools, hot tubs, and outdoor saunas.
- Make sure windows and door screens fit properly and are in good condition .
Should You Be Worried?
Experts want people to be aware of the risks, but caution the public not to panic, because EEEV is extremely rare.
“It is a severe disease … but the numbers are small, and much smaller than for West Nile virus,” says Marc Fischer, a medical epidemiologist with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s arboviral disease branch .
In the United States, there are an average of seven cases reported annually, and from 2009 to 2018 there were a total of 72 recorded cases- far fewer than the West Nile virus, of which there are typically hundreds of cases every year [2,4].
Last year, however, there were a record number of cases.
“Every few years you get a higher number of cases. And they can be in different places. Massachusetts is one of the states that has historically had a higher number of cases. But there are other states. Florida typically has the most cases overall,” Fischer said. “So it moves around, it occurs in different places in different years. And you have high and low years.” 
Experts are still unsure as to why some years see more infections than others. Much of the research on the virus is decade’s old, which does not necessarily reflect the current circumstances .
For now, though, cases of the virus still remain very low. Experts are not expecting that there will be much work put toward developing a vaccine, so the best thing you can do is wear protective clothing, avoid mosquito-infested areas, and use bug spray when needed.
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