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Hastings resident shares EEE survival story, favors spraying

More than 30 years ago, Rene Swift of Hastings contracted Eastern equine encephalitis from a mosquito bite.

 

Greg Chandler

Staff Writer

 

Rene Swift lives a full life.

By day, she's the office manager at RB Excavating Inc. in Hastings. She refers to herself as a “Jackie of all trades” because of the various responsibilities she takes on each day.

“I can do just about anything that needs to be done here,” she said. “You need dirt, I can move dirt. You need gravel, I can move gravel. I keep the yard cleaned up.”

When not at work, Swift enjoys spending time with her husband, Steve, two children and six grandchildren.

But the recent outbreak of Eastern equine encephalitis across Michigan has brought back memories of a scary time in Swift's life. More than three decades ago, she survived a battle with the mosquito-borne disease that is fatal in one out of every three cases.

“It is not fun. Not even for a minute,” said Swift, who supports the recent decision by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to have more than 107,000 acres of land in seven Barry County townships sprayed in an effort to eradicate the mosquito population.

In 1985, Swift was living in Lake Odessa, about two miles away from a horse farm. She was bitten by a mosquito, but didn't think anything of it at the time.

“I was cleaning the house, and it was evening,” she said. “When I woke up the next morning, (I thought) wow,  I had a really bad hangover. I got through the day. Two days later, I woke up with the same hangover. I seemed weird to me, but didn't think much of it.”

Three weeks later, Swift still wasn't feeling well. It was August, so Swift wrote it off as a summer flu bug.

“I was getting where I couldn't get off the couch. I had this bad headache,” she said. “In the middle of the night (one night), I got up and got very sick to my stomach. I was so weak, I couldn't get myself up off the floor. My husband did hear me, and I thought I was too weak for him to hear me and wake him up. He got me up and took me to the hospital in Lansing.”

When Swift got to the hospital, she could not even verbalize what was wrong with her. The emergency room doctor who was treating her became frustrated and said “in not a very nice voice,” as she puts it, that he couldn't help her if she couldn't tell him what was going on.

Finally, the doctor decided to do a spinal tap on Swift.

“He came back, very apologetic and said, 'You have got equine encephalitis,'” she said. “They ended up admitting me into the hospital and I stayed for a week.”

As it turned out, it was the third case of EEE that had been diagnosed at the hospital in a matter of several hours. “It was baffling to them,” she said.

EEE involves swelling of the brain, with symptoms including high fever, muscle pain, headache and seizures. The disease can leave victims paralyzed or intellectually impaired.

Even after Swift was able to go home, it took a long time for her to recover. She had to use a wheelchair to get around, and her mother had to come and assist her with such responsibilities as buying groceries. More than a month passed before she was fully healthy again. Fortunately, she said, she shows no long-term effects from the disease.

State officials have confirmed 10 human cases of EEE and 34 animal cases statewide, including one human case and five animal cases in Barry County. The most recent human case was reported in Cass County on Tuesday. Four of the 10 human cases in the state have proved fatal.

While some have criticized the decision by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to spray areas where EEE cases have been found, Swift said she believes it was the right thing to do.

“The people that are upset about the spraying, my heart feels for them,” she said. “However, there's (four) lives that have been lost.

“If you have a family member or you yourself encountered (EEE), you would definitely, 100 percent, feel differently.”

When the latest round of EEE-related illnesses broke out in August, Swift didn't hesitate to take measures to protect herself.

“Two doors down from us, our neighbors have a couple of horses. I was either (applying) bug spray or didn't go out,” she said.

MDHHS announced Tuesday that it had completed spraying on more than 557,000 acres across the state where EEE cases had been found. Additional aerial treatment is not planned because of cooler temperatures that have moved in.

“In one year, we have had more human EEE cases confirmed than in the past decade,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for MDHHS. “We chose to conduct aerial treatment to protect the health and safety of Michiganders.

“We also continue to urge communities and residents to take precautions against mosquito bites as the risk of EEE remains until the first hard frost.”

Townships in Barry County that were sprayed are: Assyria, Baltimore, Barry, Hope, Johnstown, Maple Grove and Prairieville.
      Residents should continue to protect themselves from mosquito bites by:

• Avoiding being outdoors from dusk to dawn when mosquitos that carry the EEE virus are most active.

• Applying insect repellents that contain the active ingredient DEET, or other U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-registered product to exposed skin or clothing, and always follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.

• Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors. Apply insect repellent to clothing to help prevent bites.

• Maintaining window and door screening to help keep mosquitoes outside.

• Emptying water from mosquito breeding sites around the home, such as buckets, unused kiddie pools, old tires or similar sites where mosquitoes may lay eggs.

• Using nets and/or fans over outdoor eating areas.

For more information about EEE, visit michigan.gov/EEE.

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