ST. PAUL, Minn. - A new study aims to discover if mosquitoes in Northern Minnesota are carrying a virus more deadly than West Nile after that virus was detected in wildlife including moose, elk and wolves.
It's called eastern equine encephalitis virus, also known as EEEV.
Epidemiologist Dave Neitzel is a tick and mosquito disease specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health. He said cases of EEEV in humans are rare with very few cases in the U.S.
He said there are "about an average of six cases per year. However about half the people that have illness due to EEEV die from their illness and almost everybody else has long term neurological damage."
He said the closest human case was in Wisconsin.
So far, no human cases have been diagnosed in Minnesota.
Minnesota's moose population could be batting the illness. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife veterinarian Erika Butler said antibodies have been found in moose blood. She said EEEV could be to blame for a population in the northwest part of the state declining from 8,000 to 4,500 moose. She said statistics indicated moose could be gone from the state within 20 years.
Butler said of EEEV, "It doesn't necessarily mean that it's making our moose sick. We know that they had high antibody levels. It definitely sparked our interest."
Mosquitoes are being collected in Northern Minnesota as part of the new multi-agency study, which includes the University of Minnesota, the DNR and the Minnesota Department of Health.
So far, four of the six species of mosquitoes known to carry EEEV have been found although it's not clear if those specific mosquitoes are carrying the virus.
Butler says those mosquitoes will be tested this fall with results known by January.
EEEV does kill horses. There were three state cases in 2001 but none since.
As for human risk, it is possible Minnesotans have been infected and doctors just weren't looking for it.
Neitzel said, "There have been cases of encephalitis in the past that have not been fully diagnosed."
But he said West Nile is a much bigger threat to humans because EEEV is so rare.
Butler said, "Of course always wear bug spray if they're bad [and] long sleeves. But it's not going to keep me from going outside."
She said this winter the DNR will also put collars on one-hundred moose. Those collars will send text messages when the moose die, so scientists can get to them quickly to determine a cause of death.
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