EEE cycle enters year three, prep already underway

BOSTON — As Massachusetts hopes to move on from one public health crisis in COVID, another disease may still be looming.

Eastern Equine Encephalitis is a rare disease that affects the brain and is deadly. EEE, what it’s commonly called, generally comes every 10-20 years according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and remains for three-year cycles. This is significant because 2019 was the first time the commonwealth saw significant EEE infections since 2012 when there were seven human cases and three deaths.

The disease leads to the closure of parks at dusk and forced schools to change their practice and game schedules for outdoor sports. The changes were in response to a EEE outbreak that resulted in twelve people being infected with the mosquito-borne virus, resulting in half of them died.

One of the unlucky dozen people who became sick with EEE in late summer was Robert Powderly of Framingham.

“I just had a wicked headache,” Powderly told Boston 25 News during an interview in his backyard.

In September 2019, the former Navy captain, who is in his 70s, was hospitalized.

Normally healthy and independent, Powderly spent two weeks in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, according to his wife, Ann.

“That was tough on my family,” Robert Powderly explained. “Not knowing what they were going to get back, assuming I recovered from it.”

It was not a disease that only preyed on older residents. A five-year-old Sudbury girl was in critical condition after being infected with EEE that same summer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that EEE is rare and causes a brain infection. In the United States, EEE surfaces a few times per year, generally in the east or Gulf Coast states, and about 30% of those with the disease die, but survivors can have long-term neurological problems.

Previous report: EEE arrives early as mosquito control bill awaits House action

“I had to learn how to stand, sit (and) tie my shoes,” Powderly said.

Massachusetts had more deaths in 2019 than it did in the previous 63. According to public health data, in 2020, EEE infections were not nearly as prevalent, with a total of five cases, one death.

“That doesn’t seem like much compared to 2019, but it is a typical outbreak year for us,” said Dr. Catherine Brown, DPH State Epidemiologist. “I think we need to remember while EEE is a very dangerous, disease it remains extraordinarily rare.”

Mosquito control efforts have already begun in counties where EEE is often seen, including Norfolk. But the dry weather we saw last spring and so far, this season may be most beneficial, David Lawson of the Norfolk County Mosquito Control District told Boston 25.

“We’re thinking this year won’t be a terrible year. Of course, we can’t predict these kinds of things,” Lawson said.

As the professionals do their work to lessen the impact of mosquitoes and the disease they carry, there are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. These could include wearing repellent and long sleeves and pants when outdoors where mosquitoes are present to avoiding outside activities from dusk to dawn.

Powderly said he was lucky, and now he wears long pants and shirts whenever he is sitting in his back yard or by the pool.

“It’s something you out to be, not paranoid about, but smart,” he said.