Massachusetts health officials have confirmed a case of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus infection in a male over 60 from southern Plymouth County.
This is the first human case of EEE in Massachusetts since 2013. As a result, the risk level in nine communities has been raised to critical.
"Today's news is evidence of the significant risk from EEE and we are asking residents to take this risk very seriously," said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, MD, MPH. "We will continue to monitor this situation and the impacted communities."
The nine communities now at critical risk are Carver, Lakeville, Marion, Middleborough, Rochester, and Wareham in Plymouth County and Acushnet, Freetown and New Bedford in Bristol County.
The state is recommending that people in these high-risk areas avoid outdoor activities between dusk and dawn, when infected mosquitoes are most likely to spread EEE.
Earlier this week, DPH and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) announced they would be conducting aerial spraying in specific areas of Bristol and Plymouth counties to reduce the mosquito population and public health risk.
Aerial spraying started on August 8 and is expected to continue throughout the weekend during the evening and overnight hours, the DPH said.
"Although the aerial spray is absolutely anticipated to reduce risk, we cannot eliminate it, so we're really asking everyone in the area[s] of increased risk to take all necessary steps to avoid mosquito bites," said Doctor Catherine Brown, a Massachusetts epidemiologist.
"EEE is cyclical in Massachusetts, so we tend to have two to three years of intense activity followed by some number of years of quiescence," she added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, EEE is a rare but serious and potentially fatal disease that can affect people of all ages. It occurs sporadically in Mass. with the most recent outbreak in 2004-2006 and 2010-2012, DPH said.
"The patient may have a change in mental status, become confused and then will likely deteriorate from there," Dr. Brown said. "Virtually all of our cases end up hospitalized."
There were 22 human cases of EEE infection during those two outbreak periods with 14 of those cases in residents of Bristol and Plymouth Counties.
More than 30 years ago, a local woman's daughter got EEE when she was just 6-years-old from a mosquito bite in New Jersey. Jean Becker's daughter, Jackie, got the virus on vacation.
"For a while it was just trying to wake up in the morning and not be sick to your stomach because this just happened, you just couldn't believe this," Jean said.
Becker says when her daughter got the virus it started as a fever and turned into seizures.
When they found out it was EEE, Jackie went into a medically-induced coma for five weeks and was never the same after that.
Now, she's 42 and needs one-on-one assistance every day.
"The effects are huge," Jean said. "It's a brain injury, she can't tie her shoes, she can't brush her teeth, she can't brush her hair, I have to make sure the door in her bedroom is locked on the outside because you don't want her walking out and falling down the stairs."
EEE is very rare, but it can be deadly or cause serious brain damage.
Becker says she’s sad to hear about the first human case this weekend in Massachusetts in six years. She hopes people take those extra precautions to protect themselves from the crippling disease.
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