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Colorized electron microscope image of mosquito salivary gland tissue infected by the EEE virus (in red). Photo: Fred Murphy, Sylvia Whitfield/CDC

Public health officials on Wednesday declared the mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus to be an "emergent threat" in the U.S. after an unusually high number of cases have occurred so far this year.

Why it matters: While EEE remains rare, there are no vaccines or specific viral treatments available. The virus can attack the brain and sometimes cause death.

"It's interesting, because something like between 1831 and 1959, there were around 13 total cases documented. But, for the first time this year, there's at least 36."
— Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, to Axios

Background: EEE is a member of the alphavirus family, which tends to attack the brain. The virus is spread mainly by Culiseta melanura mosquitoes and various tree-perching birds found in forested wetlands, but it can circulate in small mammals, reptiles or amphibians as well, per the NIAID.

  • C. melanura mosquitoes don't usually bite people, but occasionally a mosquito that does, like the Aedes aegypti mosquito, will bite an infected bird and then transmit the virus to a person.
  • While human infections are rare and most people (96%) don't show symptoms, the death rate for those who do experience symptoms is "really high," at around 35% mortality while many others suffer permanent and severe neurologic damage, Fauci says.
  • Researchers do not know yet why the virus is sometimes able to breach the blood-brain barrier and cause damage, Fauci adds.

The latest: As of Nov. 19, there have been 36 confirmed cases and 14 deaths from EEE virus disease in eight states, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These were in: Connecticut (4), Indiana (1), Massachusetts (12), Michigan (10), North Carolina (1), New Jersey (4), Rhode Island (3), and Tennessee (1).

  • In a perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine published Wednesday, NIAID officials including Fauci catalogue the threat of the growing spread of vector-borne illnesses (from mosquitos or ticks) to humans, like EEE.
  • Four vector-borne human illnesses "have evolved" so that they now infect the A. aegypti mosquito, which feeds mostly on humans, the authors point out. These are dengue, yellow fever, Zika and chikungunya.

Threat level: "You don't want the Aedes to adapt to that [EEE virus]," Fauci says. It hasn't happened yet, he points out, but researchers are "keeping an eye on it."

What's next: Some CDC officials earlier this year called for a national defense strategy to coordinate health responses to all vector-borne illnesses.

  • There's also an EEE virus vaccine under development by the U.S. Army that's currently in a clinical trial.

Go deeper: Earth faces mass extinctions

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Updated 3 mins ago - Health

WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Health measures taken to combat COVID-19 before the emergence of Omicron would also help against the new variant of concern, World Health Organization officials said Friday.

What they're saying: Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said during a virtual briefing broadcast from Manila, Philippines, that border controls imposed by the U.S. and other nations can "buy time" to deal with the variant, but warned "every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases."

2 hours ago - Health

Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Nevada's Public Employees' Benefit Program Board voted Thursday to charge workers enrolled in public employee health insurance plans a surcharge of up to $55 a month if they're not vaccinated against COVID-19, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.

Why it matters: Nevada is the first state to announce such a move, per AP.

Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Getty Images

The state of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on Thursday in an attempt to block the enforcement of its vaccine mandate for federal employees.

Why it matters: The move comes one day after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin denied Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt's (R) request to exempt the state's National Guard from the mandate.