ELKHART — Local officials are urging residents to continue to take precautionary measures to avoid getting the eastern equine encephalitis after state officials confirmed the death of an Elkhart County resident as a result of the mosquito-transmitted disease.
The Indiana State Department of Health confirmed the first human case in Indiana since 1998 on Saturday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said five to 10 human cases of EEE are reported across the country each year and nearly one-third of human cases are fatal.
The identity of the Elkhart County patient who died has not been revealed. According to Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz, the patient contracted the virus before the county conducted aerial spraying on Oct. 2.
“It usually takes about a week or so after an infected mosquito bite for symptoms to develop,” Mertz said.
Often the disease starts with flu-like symptoms of fever and body aches, Mertz said. If the body cannot fight off the virus, the disease will spread to nervous tissue, including the brain, in a few days, she said.
“There is no specific treatment,” she said. “Doctors can only help support an infected person and hope their own immune system will be able to fight the virus off. The mortality rate is quite high, and those who survive often are left with neurological sequelae.”
Mertz said it was a chance event the victim was bitten by a mosquito carrying the EEE virus.
“This victim was doing what many others do but just got bit,” she said.
EEE has been found in more than a dozen horses in northern Indiana this year.
Annual vaccines reduce the chances of horses getting EEE, said Jeff Burbrink, an educator with Purdue Extension Elkhart County, noting that many owners don’t realize that it’s an annual need.
“From our office’s perspective, since we work with many 4-H kids, they’re required to vaccinate annually, but from what I understand many that lost their horses didn’t understand that the vaccination was an annual need,” he said. “They seemed to have thought that once the horse is vaccinated like when people get vaccinated for measles, they’re pretty much done with vaccination for the rest of their lives. But there are some vaccinations out there that you have to do annually and triple E is one of those.”
When the outbreak occurred in Elkhart County, Burbrink said many stores were out of the triple E vaccine and were looking around trying to find more vaccines to bring in.
Crews in Elkhart County sprayed Dibrom earlier this month in targeted areas to kill mosquitoes that spread EEE. The spray is expected to kill 90 percent of the area’s mosquitoes, but Burbrink and Mertz said residents should still take precautions.
“If you have a billion mosquitoes in your neighborhood and kill 90 percent of them, you still have a lot of mosquitoes left,” said Burbrink. “And there’s a certain percentage of them that are going to be carrying the virus both before and after the spraying, so you still have that equal chance if you get bit by a mosquito of getting the virus, so you do need to take the precaution.”
Mertz said the risk for EEE is not over until temperatures fall to 28 degrees.
“Although you may not see mosquitoes when the temperature is in the 40s or low 50s, they are just hiding on tree trunks or vegetation,” she said. “When the weather warms up to the upper 50s or just 60s, they’ll be out again and looking for a blood meal.”
Mertz said Elkhart County Health Department strongly encourages residents to continue to protect themselves from this “devastating disease.”
The department urges residents to wear mosquito repellent when outdoors, continue to avoid being out at dusk or dawn when they become more active. Residents should also empty any containers that collect mosquitoes and empty, scrub and refill containers like birdbaths weekly to remove mosquito larvae.
“Although this disease is uncommon, it is quite deadly, and I encourage residents to keep protecting themselves until a hard frost,” Mertz said.