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First cases of deadly mosquito-borne disease found in Delaware this year

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

DNREC says it’s identified the first cases of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE, in it’s sentinel chicken this year.

The state uses twenty chicken stations statewide to help track EEE and West Nile Virus across the state, diseases both transmitted by mosquitoes.

Chickens are often used to track and identify mosquito-borne diseases because they don't get sick from the virus' and don't develop a high enough level of the virus in their bloodstream to give the disease back to mosquitos, potentially spreading it further.

The state is already experiencing a particularly active year for West Nile, with 18 of those chicken stations testing positive for the virus, and two cases of West Nile reported in humans. One case of West Nile has also been found in a Delaware horse.

So far, the state has not found any cases of EEE in people or horses.

DNREC says EEE is rarer than West Nile, but can be more debilitating and life threatening for both people and horses. The mortality rate for EEE in humans is 30%, and higher among infants, children and the elderly. In comparison, the mortality rate for West Nile in the United States is around 5%.

Symptoms can start within 4 to 10 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito. DNREC says early EEE symptoms can include: headache, high fever, stiff neck, tremors or muscle weakness, with more severe cases progressing to stupor, disorientation, coma, convulsions, paralysis and possibly death.

And symptoms of West Nile and EEE can seem similar in early stages, but EEE often becomes more pronounced and debilitating, often resulting in hospitalization.

DNREC says suspected cases of EEE or West Nile should be reported to the Delaware Division of Public Health's office of Infectious Disease Epidemeology at 302-295-5156.

The agency adds fall is peak mosquito-borne disease season and Delawareans should remain vigilant through November. Those heading outdoors should wear long sleeved shirts and pants and apply insect repellent; as well as avoiding the outdoors during peak mosquito times: dusk, dawn and night.

And if horse owners suspect their horse is showing signs of either EEE or West Nile, which can include: fever, loss of appetite, head pressing, depression or personality change, wobbling or staggering, weakness, blindness, convulsions, muscle tremors in the head and neck, and hind-limb weakness, they should contact their veterinarian immediately.

DNREC says in response to increased activity of mosquito-borne diseases, the agency has increased mosquito population surveillance and control to prevent further infections

Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.