State: Move evening events to prevent EEE

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One week ahead of high school football kickoff, state health officials are advising organizations to shift start times for evening events to help prevent people from contracting Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

Saying it was operating out of an abundance of caution, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued the warning Friday. It says activities happening around dusk should be rescheduled, postponed or canceled. It specifically noted sports events involving children.

EEE is a rare mosquito-borne illness that often proves deadly for humans, killing an average of 33% of those who develop symptoms, with children and older adults at higher risk. Last year, 10 people in Michigan contracted it and six of them, all in southwest Michigan, died.

In 2019, several West Michigan school districts scheduled football games to start earlier in the day so they would wrap up before dusk, when mosquitoes are more active.

So far, no people have been infected with EEE this year, but it has infected 20 horses in seven counties — including one horse in Ionia County, a case announced by health officials Friday.

MDHHS says that’s twice as many animal cases as the same time last year.

“As animal cases continue to grow, the risks to people increase as well,” Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said in a Friday statement. “People get EEE the same way horses do – from the bite of an infected mosquito – so a case in a horse means people in that area are also at risk. Limiting exposure at outdoor activities, especially near dusk when mosquitoes are most active, is the best way to keep you and your family safe from this deadly disease.”

The disease kills about 90% of horses who develop symptoms, but there is a vaccine for horses. There is no EEE vaccine for people.

Horse owners are reminded to vaccinate the animals and keep them in the barn during peak mosquito hours. People should use mosquito repellent with DEET and wear long pants and shirts while outdoors to prevent bites.

If you have questions about EEE, you can call the MDHHS hotline during regular business hours at 888.535.6136 — that’s the same number that takes questions about COVID-19.

The threat of infection will remain until the first hard freeze of the season kills mosquitoes.