LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging officials in Barry, Cass, Van Buren, Kalamazoo and Berrien counties to cancel, postpone or reschedule any outdoor activities at or after dusk after two more people died from Eastern equine encephalitis.
“This is really an unusual number of Eastern equine encephalitis cases in Southwest Michigan and it’s potentially a very deadly disease if somebody does contract it from a mosquito bite. So given the number of cases… we feel like we take, take the utmost caution in protecting the health of people in Southwest Michigan. That’s why we’re making this recommendation,” said MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton.
The state agency said Tuesday the most recent deaths involved people in Cass and Van Buren counties.
MDHHS says the two new deaths are among the four new human cases of EEE they’ve confirmed, bringing the total to seven confirmed human cases of EEE in five counties: Barry, Cass, Van Buren, Kalamazoo and Berrien counties. Kalamazoo County had three cases; the rest of the counties had one confirmed case.
Additionally, EEE has claimed the lives of five deer from Barry, Cass, Genesee, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties and nine horses from Barry, Kalamazoo, Lapeer and St. Joseph counties. All of the horses were not vaccinated against EEE and the deer had to be euthanized because of the severity of their symptoms.
MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said this EEE outbreak is the worst the state has experienced in more than a decade. Wheaton said the last time Michigan had an outbreak similar to this was in 2002, with six cases of EEE.
The MDHHS said it’s encouraging event changes until the first hard frost of the year “out of an abundance of caution to protect public health.” The state agency is particularly concerned about late evening sports practices, games and outdoor music practices involving children.
“We’re talking about the first hard frost which is not just a little bit of frost but when we reach the point where people will have to bring in some of their plants to protect them,” Wheaton said.
The outbreak is on the radar of health departments across the state. In Kent County, where there have been no recorded cases of EEE, Brian Hartl, epidemiology supervisor with the health department, said the disease is rare but serious.
“This is a much more serious infection than what we see with West Nile virus, so I think that’s the thing to keep in mind to help people understand the severity of this,” Hartl said. “Also, I don’t think we need to totally panic with this.”
Hartl said in areas without confirmed cases, there’s no need to take the precautions advised for affected counties.
Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford said awareness is key.
“We just want people to understand the severity of the situation and realize it’s not something we want to mess with and realize it’s very preventable,” he said.
Kalamazoo County Health & Community Services Department echoed MDHHS’ recommendation about canceling or moving outdoor events.
Emphasizing how rare EEE is, the Berrien County Health Department said it’s not recommending any outdoor event cancellations, but suggested groups could relocate indoors “if practical.”
>>Online: MDHHS on mosquito-borne diseases
EEE is one of the most dangerous diseases mosquitoes can carry. Although human cases are rare, approximately one in three people sickened by EEE will die from it. Symptoms include fever, chills and body aches. Severe cases can lead to headaches, disorientation, tremors, seizures, paralysis, brain damage, coma and death.
EEE is more deadly among horses, with a fatality rate of 90%, but there is a vaccine for horses and not humans.
The MDHHS is urging people to take steps to deter disease-carrying mosquitoes before they head outside, including using repellents containing DEET on their body and clothes and wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants.
“This is particularly important for children and people over the age of 50,” Wheaton said.
Residents are also encouraged to dump out any standing water in their yard and replacing window and door screens with tears or holes that a mosquito could pass through.
“If you’re doing in fact any eating in an eating area outdoors, have nets or fans over that eating area,” Wheaton added.
—News 8’s Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.