ANNAPOLIS – The state’s first case this year of a fatal disease that can infect flightless birds, horses and even humans was found in a dead emu from Wicomico County Wednesday.
The disease, Eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE, has appeared sporadically in the area over the past decade and was confirmed in the Fruitland bird by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“We just want to make sure that people take extra precaution,” said Cy Lesser, the state Department of Agriculture’s chief of mosquito control. Besides conducting regular spraying, he said, the MDA is urging people to wear long sleeves and repellent and to dispose of standing water.
While residents are advised to avoid swampy areas, Lesser said the concern is that the recent case “wasn’t in a remote unpopulated swamp but in a residential area, not too far away from the town limits of Salisbury.”
He said rainfall has boosted mosquito populations on the Eastern Shore, and the season likely won’t be over until mid-October or later.
For farmers, “the simple answer is vaccination,” said William Higgins, director of the Centreville Animal Health Lab for the MDA, who last saw the disease fatally strike a horse in 1990.
Because of the high fatality rate in livestock, he said, farmers should vaccinate at least twice a year. The recently-diagnosed emu, part of an industry that raises the birds for their oil and lean meat, was not vaccinated.
Like the West Nile Virus, EEE is transmitted from birds to mosquitoes, which transmit the illness to livestock and humans. While EEE occurs less frequently in humans than West Nile virus, 30 to 50 percent of EEE-infected humans who develop the disease may die, as opposed to the less than 10 percent who may die after developing West Nile.
Maryland’s last reported human case of EEE was in 1989, and only one emu and three horses were reported to have the disease in 2003. The last reported cases before that occurred in 1996 on the Lower Eastern Shore.
Symptoms of the disease include long-lasting headaches, fever and lethargy and typically appear four to 10 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito. There is no known cure.
As the mosquito season draws to a close, said Lesser, residents should not view the insects as just a minor annoyance.
“You could be out and have 1,000 mosquitoes bite you and none of them have the virus,” he said, “but you could be out and have one mosquito bite you, and it has the virus.”