Deadly mosquito-borne virus puts Michigan residents on edge

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Vicksburg — Karen Wile thought the worst when her 6-year-old son, Gabe, had a 103-degree fever last week following an insect bite, fearing it was the result of a deadly mosquito-spread virus.

The uneasiness consumed her until she knew it wasn't the Eastern equine encephalitis virus that has recently killed four people in Michigan and left one child without the ability to speak.

Gabe only had the flu, but Wile said this week that "the threat when you get it is real."

Karen Wile sprays her son Gabe, 6, with bug spray before he goes outside in Vicksburg, Michigan.

The virus, nicknamed EEE, has put Michiganians on edge, especially those who live in southern Michigan where animals and people have contracted it. The fourth person to die — Stan Zalner, 79, of Battle Creek — reportedly passed away Wednesday after being hospitalized in September with flu-like symptoms. 

Like many in their community, Wile's family has taken precautions. Her 16-year-old son, she says, cannot leave the house without long sleeves or pants. The chalkboard in their home reflects the continued vigilance, screaming in colorful words, "Remember Bug Spray!!"

"Why wouldn't I do everything that they're telling us, that the health department tells us to do to mitigate the risk," said Wile, 52, whose husband, Larry, is the medical director of the Van Buren-Cass District Health Department, where two elderly men recently died of the virus. "I'm not completely flipping out but close. I think a lot of people are just unaware."

A  flyer in the window of Vickers Lakeside Tavern in Vicksburg, Michigan, promotes an event that will donate 10% of the proceeds to help Savannah DeHart, 14,  who contracted the EEE mosquito virus.

As of Wednesday, nine cases in humans had been confirmed in six southern or southwestern counties, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That many cases in one year alone is serious "when we've had not even that many in a 10-year span," said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Cases have also occurred in 33 animals from 15 counties — including Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Calhoun, Cass, Genesee, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Kent, Lapeer, Montcalm, Newaygo, St. Joseph and Van Buren. It has been detected as far east as Livingston County near Metro Detroit with the death of a horse, state officials said.

The virus carried by mosquitoes has prompted preventive measures, as high school games and events have moved to earlier start times.

"It has that 33% fatality rate, and those that survive have life-long disabilities typically," said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human  Services."So we do know this is very serious. And we have continued to see it spread."

Eastern equine encephalitis has spread to 15 counties, with nine cases found in humans and 33 in animals. Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

While there is an EEE vaccine for horses, state officials said there isn't any for humans.

So in a bid to prevent the condition from spreading, state officials have started aerial pesticide spraying for the first time since 1980. More than 186,000 acres across the state had been sprayed as of Thursday, but some homeowners have opted out because of concerns about the spraying.

State officials say the pesticide, Merus 3.0, does not pose a health risk to humans or animals, including bees and other pollinators such as butterflies. The organic pesticide spray kills mosquitoes on contact, officials said.

The manufacturer says the pesticide — comprised of, in part, vegetable oil and a derivative of chrysanthemum flowers from Africa — is applied at an extremely low dosage rate of less than an ounce per acre.

The fight against EEE will last until the affected areas have a hard frost, which helps kill mosquitoes that thrive in warm weather. There are worries that a frost might not come until later in the month as normal fall temperatures take hold.

"And we do not have a hard frost in the forecast probably after mid-October," Sutfin said. "So that's what you need is a couple of nights of really cold weather to kill off your mosquito population, and that's not in the forecast right now."

Karen Wile, with husband Larry Wile and son Gabe Wile in the kitchen of their Vicksburg, Michigan home, talks about her concerns for her family due to the EEE mosquito virus.

State officials are working with local health officials to keep the public informed and updated. Residents should take proper precautions by applying insect repellent, wearing long-sleeved shirts and not going out in damp areas where mosquitoes harbor late at night, Sutfin said.

If those moves are done, "I think you're definitely good to go, and I definitely think you should get out there and enjoy our last days of warm Michigan weather," she said.

But concerns about the virus linger. Dana Castle, 57, of Brady Township near Vicksburg, is worried about the virus, especially since her three grandchildren live in the region.

"I'm not going outside in the evenings," said Castle, who lives near a horse farm. "Your chances of living through equine encephalitis are 1 in 3. Your odds are not great."

Dana Castle of Vicksburg, Michigan talks  about the EEE mosquito virus scare in western Michigan.

When asked if people should be fearful, Castle said, "They should be. You've got a virus that can kill people. And that's caused by a mosquito."

The virus often gets diagnosed too late to save the lives of people who contract it because it mimics stroke-like symptoms or disorientation, said Larry Wile, 57the health director who had to deal with the aftermath of the deaths of the two men over age 60 in Marsellus in Cass County and Paw Paw in Van Buren County.

Pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, he said, can "exacerbate" EEE and "can make you have a more rapid demise." 

"This is a really delicate balance in public health because it is such a small number of people that could get infected by this," he said. "We've had two deaths in our counties, but we don't want anymore. This is one of the most powerful viruses on our planet, and it's in our backyard."

The fear in their community, he said, is real even if it's tempered by having kids come in at dusk, especially those like his family who live close to lakes and bodies of water.

While the deaths in Michigan have affected older people, the disease has also impacted youth. Since August, Savanah Dehart, 14, from South Portage, has been hospitalized, preventing her from beginning her freshman year at Vicksburg High School.

"If you look at the data, the odds of getting Eastern equine encephalitis from a mosquito bite is extremely rare," said Keevin O'Neill, who is the superintendent of Vicksburg Community Schools where Dehart attends. "But with hitting close to home with one of our students, my main thing is making sure that everybody is armed with the recommendations and they are following them."

The Vicksburg High School soccer game against Three Rivers High School Wednesday starts early, at 5 p.m., following the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' recommendations ,so people can avoid being outside at dusk and during the evening when mosquitoes are most active.  Many schools on the west side of the state have taken these precautions.

Shannon Myers, 50, of Vicksburg, added that "we've had a lot of debates about" EEE as her daughter, a nursing student in her senior year of college, is concerned. But Myers said she and her husband, Eric, 40, don't worry as much.

"She'll send me all of the news reports, and she's like, 'Mom, make sure you're not outside,'" Myers said. "With anything in life, we're Christians, and you have to live by faith, and you can't be scared about it.

"But at the same perspective, it's the balance of using wisdom — things like long sleeves and don't be out in the thick of the woods."

Myers said she was around horses when the virus was a concern more than 10 years ago, but it didn't deter her from outdoor activities. But being smarter about it is the way to go this time around, she said.

"Will we not go for a walk at night? Yes, we will," Myers said. "But we are going to be a little more conservative."

Meanwhile, the Wile family is taking extra measures and is delaying camping trips even though the family enjoys them. And Karen Mile said she won't drop her guard.

"It's going to be a while until we have a hard frost, so we just have to be careful," she said.

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