BOSTON — Eastern Equine Encephalitis has people in Massachusetts on high alert. The virus has infected a dozen people, killing three of them, but a local doctor says we'll likely never see a vaccine.
"Massachusetts has an important part in the history of EEE because that is where the first human cases were discovered," said Dr. Asim Ahmed, Infectious Diseases, Boston Children's Hospital.
Ahmed says Mass. has a long history with EEE, which was first detected in horses in the 1800s. Nearly two centuries later, EEE's pattern still has public health officials and doctors scratching their heads.
"In 2004, 2005, 2006 - we had a very aggressive three-year cluster of this virus in Massachusetts. Then quizzically seemed to disappear for a few years. Then in 2012 there were seven human cases and then again, in this roughly five to seven-year period difference, it was silent really from 2013-2019, but as you can see its reemerged with a vengeance in 2019," said Ahmed.
Ahmed is also working for a California-based biotech company Karius, which hopes to develop a product that would be able to detect EEE in mosquito pools early in the season. That would also allow state health officials to take aggressive prevention measures much sooner than they do now.
"There's no effective treatments for this virus and prevention is our only way of really mitigating its effect. So to ramp up up every prevention measure we have at our disposal is very critical," said Ahmed.
He says even with early detection, getting a vaccine on the market probably isn't going to happen.
"The safety net on the efficacy of the vaccine is very difficult to study given the small numbers. As you can imagine, even in a really bad year, 11 patients, to vaccinate the entire state to prevent 11 cases is even quite difficult," he said.
Children have a better chance of surviving EEE. Ahmed says a colleague at Children's Hospital looked at the people infected with EEE between 1970 and 2010. According to the study, the death rate for adults was between 35% and 50%, while it was in the 20% range for children.
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