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VERIFY: What you should know about mosquito-borne EEE virus

A report about a deadly mosquito-borne illness 'brewing' in the northeast made headlines. While you should be aware, VERIFY found there's good reason not to panic.

With 2020 offering what seems to be a non-stop onslaught of shocking news, lots of worrisome or scary headlines have taken off quickly on social media. 

First, we had the "murder hornets" causing quite the buzz online. And now, there's more insect news flying all over the web. This time, it's a story warning that a "deadly mosquito-borne illness is brewing in the northeast U.S" just in time for states relaxing coronavirus restrictions.  

It's certainly a frightening prospect and the EEE virus, or Eastern equine encephalitis, is quite deadly but it’s unlikely to have the level of spread that we've seen from COVID-19.

Some users simply responded in jest to the frightening headline on their social media feeds with the response of “not now.”

So how concerned should you really be about EEE as Summer begins? Here's what VERIFY found out. 

THE QUESTION

Is EEE spreading across the northeast?

THE ANSWER

Not at this moment.

Since Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is spread by mosquitoes, the season for the virus comes in the late summer, according to the New York Department of Health. The viral report from One Zero on Medium uses past years' data as a reference in the claim that the virus is becoming more widespread each year.

However, at this moment, there’s only a few cases in the United States every year.

WHAT WE FOUND

The article itself is framed around how the spread of EEE last summer altered schedules and lives in the northeast, just before COVID-19 led to massive restrictions nationwide. 

While the EEE virus can be deadly, transmission is quite rare.

According to the Centers for Disease, an average of seven cases are reported annually (ranging from three to 15 cases each year from 2009 to 2018). However, the number of cases did jump in 2019, with the CDC confirming 38 cases across 10 states. 

In the viral report, the author uses the data from the past few years, with an emphasis on 2019, as evidence that EEE is becoming more widespread as climate change makes the northeast more hospitable to the mosquitoes responsible for the spread of the virus.

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However, we still don’t for sure whether the 2019 rate of infection is an outlier or signs of an upward trend until we see its spread this year.

The reason why the annual number of cases is typically so low is because transmission occurs entirely from mosquitoes who bite birds with the virus and then bite humans. There is no human-to-human spread.

A big reason the virus is still concerning is because the CDC says the mortality rate for those who are infected is approximately 30%. Last year, 15 of the 38 people who had confirmed EEE virus cases died. Additionally, many survivors have ongoing neurologic problems even after recovery. 

The virus should be taken seriously and there should be interest in curbing its spread, but it’s unlikely to become the next big disaster of 2020.

According to the CDC, about 95% of the people who are bitten by an EEE-infected mosquito won't get sick. Plus, infection of the virus is believed to confer life-long immunity to reinfection regardless if you get the disease or not.

So, it’s possible that this deadly mosquito-borne virus could cause campgrounds to close or force Friday night football games to reschedule for Saturday afternoons, like what happened in the northeast in 2019, according to the article. But it’s very unlikely that this virus will have the level of impact and force shutdowns on the same level as COVID-19.

Overall, the only way to reliably prevent the virus is to avoid getting bitten from mosquitoes because there isn’t a cure or vaccine for it. The CDC recommends using insect repellent when going outdoors in the summer, taking steps to keep mosquitoes away from your home, and avoid going in or around swamps during summer months. 

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