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4 People In Massachusetts Have Contracted Eastern Equine Encephalitis, One Has Died

By  Ashe Schow
Frontal close-up of an yellow-fever mosquito sucking blood, known vector of zika virus, chikungunya, yellow fever and dengue.
Joao Paulo Burini via Getty Images

A rare disease typically associated with horses has so far infected four people in Massachusetts this month, one of whom has died.

Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) is spread by mosquitos and can affect horses, humans, and birds. While the disease has “equine” in the name, birds are actually the most likely to contract the disease from a particular classification of mosquito. A different species of mosquito, however, is able to transmit the disease from birds to humans and several other mammal species. Horses do not appear able to spread the disease to humans, as their blood would not contain enough of the virus to infect mosquitos, which could then infect humans.

The first Massachusetts case of EEE in six years was discovered earlier this month, according to WCVB5. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) issued a warning to nine southeastern Massachusetts communities about their risk of contracting the virus.

“Today’s news is evidence of the significant risk from EEE and we are asking residents to take this risk very seriously,” Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, MD said in a statement to the outlet. “We will continue to monitor this situation and the impacted communities.”

The first case was reported in a male patient over 60, but the disease is not limited to the elderly or infirm. The second case was discovered in a patient between the ages of 19 and 30, WCVB5 reported. The third case also involved a man over 60, while the fourth case affected a woman over the age of 50.

The woman, Laurie Sylvia, died due to the illness. Sylvia’s husband was Robert Sylvia Jr., president of the Teamsters Local 59 union. The union wrote on Facebook that it appeared Laurie would not recover after contracting EEE.

“It pains us to inform you that Laurie Sylvia, the wife of Teamsters Local 59 President Robert Sylvia, Jr has been stricken with the EEE Virus,” the union wrote. “For the last several days we were hopeful that with the best possible care from the Doctors and Staff at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, she would be able to recover. We have just learned that this will not be the case. Laurie’s condition has deteriorated and regrettably the Family is now preparing for the worst. Please keep Laurie, Bob and the rest of the family in your thoughts and prayers at this very difficult time.”

On Sunday, two of Laurie’s family members confirmed to the media that she had died. Her daughter, Jen, announced her death on Facebook.

“Today, I had to say goodbye to my best friend. My mum was my favorite person in the world,” Jen wrote. “She brought light and joy to everyone she came across.”

“I don’t know where to go from here,” she added. “I just don’t understand how such a beautiful person could be taken from me so soon.”

The MDPH identified 37 communities in the Bay State as being high to critical risk for EEE. This week, the state will start spraying for mosquitos to try and quash the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is no vaccine against EEE and that about “a third of all people with EEE die from the disease.” Those who do recover are often “left with disabling and progressive mental and physical sequelae, which can range from minimal brain dysfunction to severe intellectual impairment, personality disorders, seizures, paralysis, and cranial nerve dysfunction.”

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