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State public health officers advise res­i­dents to apply bug repellent during outdoor activ­ities. | Flickr

A deadly mos­quito-borne virus has not threatened Hillsdale County as of yet, but neigh­boring counties have been declared high-risk areas for the virus. 

Jackson, Kala­mazoo, and Calhoun counties are all con­sidered high-risk areas for EEE,  a mos­quito-borne virus found mostly in the eastern regions of the United States. 

Sixteen Michigan counties have been declared high-risk areas for the virus. The danger is ongoing, as nine human cases have been con­firmed and three people have died to date. As of Oct. 2, 33 animal cases have been con­firmed in 16 counties. 

Hillsdale College Pro­fessor of Biology and res­ident virol­ogist Silas Johnson said EEE is part of a group of viruses known as “alpha viruses.” 

“They’re all very similar in terms of their structure and function,” Johnson said.  “They share a common trans­mission mech­anism via an insect vector.” 

Johnson said EEE infects humans when a mos­quito bites an animal, most com­monly birds, that hosts the virus. The mos­quito then delivers the virus to humans where it goes straight to the blood­stream. 

A human is “a dead-end host,” according to Johnson. The virus will not spread further than its human host, so the disease is not con­ta­gious. 

“Most people infected with EEE will be com­pletely asymp­to­matic,” Johnson said. “A super tiny fraction — 3 – 5% of people — will actually show signs of any virus. And it’s usually not that severe: fever, chills, malaise, kind of like the flu. And then a very small fraction of those people actually come down with a really severe form.” 

Johnson said the severe form of EEE mimics menin­gitis and encephalitis, which are both forms of inflam­mation of the brain and sur­rounding tissues. About 30% of people who con­tract the neu­ro­logic infection will die. 

There is no cure for EEE. People under the ages 15 and above 50 are the most sus­cep­tible. 

EEE also threatens animals, espe­cially horses.

Public Infor­mation Officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Ser­vices Lynn Sutfin explained that this disease pops up in this region about once a decade. The weather and rainfall this year have both been factors, she said, but there is no spe­cific reason it has occurred this year. 

It is dif­ficult to predict where it will appear next and in what volume. While the state has con­firmed nine human cases, there are a total of 42 com­bined people and animal cases throughout 15 Michigan counties. 

Due to the unpre­dictability and severity of the EEE virus, local Michigan high school ath­letic depart­ments have had to postpone and reschedule ath­letic events.  

Ath­letes who are likely to sweat with skin exposed are easy targets for the EEE-car­rying mos­quitoes, so the virus may infect a cross country or football athlete. 

Fans attending ath­letic events are also sus­cep­tible. Schools have taken mea­sures such as moving games scheduled for night hours to earlier afternoon times. 

John Johnson, the director of broadcast prop­erties for the Michigan High School Ath­letic Asso­ci­ation, said the asso­ci­ation has been busy “deter­mining if there’s any­thing that needs to be done in terms of rear­ranging schedules and edu­cating con­stituents.” 

The department has kept in contact with and is receiving infor­mation from local ath­letic depart­ments. Johnson praised the local com­mu­nities for how they have dealt with the sit­u­ation. 

“Schools have really stepped it up in iden­ti­fying risk and taking the nec­essary steps to keep everyone safe,” Johnson said. 

Johnson added that he has never dealt with this virus on this level in his 32 years at his position.

According to a recent press release issued Sept. 27, aerial-spray treatment was con­ducted in 15 counties to combat the EEE virus. The treatment con­cen­trated on low­ering the mos­quito pop­u­lation. 

Because of the number of cases and the con­tin­u­ation of warm weather, the state has decided this is the best measure to take. 

The spraying will take place at night, when mos­quitoes are most active. 

According to Sutfin, the state treated 128,000 acres in several counties during the night of Sept. 30. The state treated more high-risk counties on Oct. 1, but the process was cut short because of weather con­di­tions.

Sutfin added that the spraying should be com­pleted in all 15 counties by Oct. 2, weather per­mitting.  After all of the counties have been treated, Sutfin said state officers will have treated 186,000 acres of land.  

The spraying process uses Merus 3.0, an organic pes­ticide. There are no health risks expected from the use of this chemical. It is not expected to impact drinking or surface water, according to the press release.  

The counties being sprayed are: Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Calhoun, Cass, Jackson, Kala­mazoo, Kent, Lapeer, Liv­ingston, Montcalm, Newaygo, St. Joseph, Van Buren, and Washtenaw.

Although there is no cure for EEE, there are several tan­gible ways to prevent con­tracting it. “Wear long sleeves and long pants when you’re out­doors, par­tic­u­larly at dusk and dawn,” Sutfin said. “Avoid being outside at dusk and dawn when mos­quitoes are most active. You should also be looking at your house to make sure your window screens and your door screens are shut and in good repair so you aren’t getting mos­quitoes inside. Every couple days, dump out any standing water, a mosquito’s breeding ground.” 

For those inter­ested in learning more infor­mation, Sutfin said they can go to Michigan.gov/EEE to view a map of affected counties.