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Michigan spending millions in mosquito war as EEE vaccine remains locked away

Matthew McNulty

The state of Michigan this weekend becomes the latest state to conduct a spraying campaign in an attempt to prevent its residents from becoming infected with the deadly mosquito-borne disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

Known as EEE, 29 cases and 9 deaths have been reported to date. Michigan which will send planes into the air to spread the environmentally safe Merus 3.0 pesticide over 720,000 acres at an estimated cost of between $1.5 million and $1.8 million.

Michigan follows Massachusetts and Rhode Island in conducting spray programs. EEE cases have also been reported in Connecticut, North Carolina, and Tennessee. "We don’t expect this to be an epidemic, but the higher than usual number of cases and the severity of the virus has raised public alarm,” says William Schaffner, MD an infectious disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville told the medical web site, Everyday Health.

Part of the reason for the public alarm is there is no vaccine to prevent or cure the mosquito-borne virus -- at least a vaccine that is commercially available.

The U.S. military has been conducting clinical trials for years with a vaccine developed in the 1980s according to WBUR-FM. That EEE vaccine had been given to military personnel and researchers to protect military personnel from dangerous pathogens. However, the Food and Drug Administration intervened and ended the military’s vaccine study.

“The FDA slapped the military for running essentially unregulated clinical trials,” said Sam Telford, an epidemiologist at Tufts University who received the vaccination as a graduate student prior to the FDA’s EEE vaccine ban.

The only way researchers can get their hands on the vaccine today is via a military clinical trial being conducted by the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Social media posts from concerned citizens have suggested employing the Right to Try Act to get access to the vaccine. The Right to Try allows for patients who have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases or conditions who are unable to participate in a clinical trial to access certain unapproved treatments.

However, it is a long jump from potential end-of-life patients to injections of a vaccine that may or may not be needed -- even though EEE can lead to death.

Recently The Journal of the American Medical Association in an article said the cost of the development of a drug from research to the time its hits your local CVS or Walgreen's is a cost of $648 million. Given the few cases of EEE reported each year, it is cost-prohibitive for drug companies to develop the vaccine, even with a fair amount of research conducted by the military.

As rare as the virus is, there has been a steady increase in EEE cases in recent years, with this year being one of the most active years for the virus in over 50 years. That still makes for less than 30 Americans who have contracted it, compared to 30,000 new cases of Lyme disease each year.

Another, problem for the vaccine developed by the military is that it only works for short periods of time. “People (would) need to receive the vaccine multiple times over years in order to maintain protection,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Mark Fisher told WBUR.

The Centers for Disease Control offers prevention suggestions which include the use of insect repellent, wearing long-sleeved pants and shirts, use screens on windows and doors and at least once a week, empty and scrub, turn over, cover, or throw out items that hold water, such as tires, buckets, planters, toys, pools, birdbaths, flowerpots, or trash containers.


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