What is EEE? Why are we spraying? Michigan health expert answers most common questions

Four Michigan residents killed by mosquito-borne illness this year

Mosquito (WDIV)

DETROIT - Local 4 spoke with an expert from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services about mosquito-borne EEE, an illness that has killed four Michigan residents this year.

Eastern equine encephalitis has been confirmed in nine Michigan residents this year, in Barry, Berrien, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

Health officials said 33 animals have also tested positive for EEE.

MDHHS officials began aerial spraying to combat the illness Monday, and the spraying has continued throughout the week.

Lynn Sutfin, a public information officer with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. (WDIV)

Public Information Officer Lynn Sutfin spoke with Local 4's Sarah Mayberry about the illness.

Why is EEE so serious?

"It is true that Eastern equine encephalitis is very rare; however, it's an incredibly serious disease and probably the most severe mosquito-borne disease we have in the United States -- 33% of the human cases of this are fatal, and those that do survive do have physical, mental deficits."

Why does state think aerial spraying is necessary?

"This is a very unusual situation that we've found ourselves in, with the cases increasing in the areas that we are seeing cases in both people and animals, increasing geographically.

"We are seeing cases -- we have one in Livingston County even, now, which is very unusual for this state. We have taken this act to protect the health and safety of Michigan residents. This is a very dangerous disease. It's 90% fatal to horses. Like I said, it's 33% fatal to people, and we just want to protect the health and safety of our residents, and this is the best option that will allow us to take care of a larger geographic area and eliminate mosquitoes in that area."

Did Kalamazoo opt out of spraying?

"Initially, it was the city, and now the entire county (Kalamazoo County) has opted out, so they will not be receiving aerial treatment."

Has Michigan done aerial spraying for mosquito-borne illness before?

"Not since 1980, so this is a very unusual step. However, we've seen nine case in one year in people. That's more than we've seen in a decade combined.

"We're at 33 animals right now, 15 counties, so we do know this is something that is a very unusual year in Michigan for this disease. We are not alone. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are also seeing quite a few cases. It's something we are concerned about.

"In addition, we have actually been going out with MSU and trapping for these particular mosquitoes -- there are two species that carry it. We're still finding this mosquito out there, so we know that it's out there. We don't have a hard frost in the forecast any time soon, so we know there's the potential for additional cases."

Sutfin said the spraying in 1980 was done for EEE as well.

"That was the last time we did spray for EEE."

How much spraying has been done so far?

"We have gotten more than 186,000 acres completed. We do have more to go. I believe it was close to 500,000 that were slated to be done, so it's something that we're going to continue doing.

"We have heard that (Thursday and Friday nights) are going to be good nights (weather-wise) for the treatment, so we are hoping to wrap this up by the end of the weekend. The plan is to continue to spray until all the areas of concern, all the areas of risk are addressed or we start getting a hard frost."

Why are cases spiking?

"That is a really good question that we've been trying to answer for quite a while. We tend to see a spike in cases about every decade. We don't know why. We know that weather plays a factor in when we see these cases -- temperature and rainfall.

"As far as being able to predict it, we just don't know."

Is this now a yearly threat?

"It's really too soon to know. This is something we will definitely continue to track and pay attention to a great deal next year, I'm sure. We do always surveil for West Nile virus. Typically, when we start seeing these EEE cases, the first cases we see are in animals and horses, which is what happened again this year. So that lets us know that it's here and we can make sure people are alerted and aware that it's something they need to take protection from as well."

Any advice for residents?

"We are recommending that everyone take precautions against getting mosquito bites. The simple way to prevent getting EEE is to prevent getting a mosquito bite. You can do that by using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves, pants when you're outdoors, particularly at dusk and dawn.

"Try to avoid being out at dusk and dawn, which is when mosquitoes are most active. Make sure your screens are all in good repair. Make sure that that helps keep the mosquitoes outside and not inside your home.

"Also, take a look around, particularly after a couple days of rain like we've had. Dump out any standing water that doesn't need to be there, in a planner or in a kiddie pool or something like that. That's prime mosquito breeding ground. If you eliminate that, you can cut down on the amount of mosquitoes in your yard."

You can listen to the full interview below.

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