Encephalitis is a serious inflammation of the brain. Arbovirus encephalitis is caused by a virus from the Arbovirus group. The term arbovirus stands for Arthropod-borne virus because these viruses are passed to humans by members of the phylum Arthropoda (which includes insects and spiders).
Of the huge number of arboviruses known to exist, about 80 types are responsible for human disease. In addition to the virus, there are usually two other types of living creatures involved in the cycle leading to human disease. When large quantities of virus are present in an arthropod (often a tick or mosquito), the viruses are passed to a bird or small mammal when the arthropod attempts to feed on the blood of that creature. The virus thrives within the new host, sometimes causing illness, sometimes not. More ticks or mosquitoes are infected with the virus when they feed on the host's blood. Eventually, a tick or mosquito bites a human, and the virus is passed along. Just a few types of arboviruses cycle only between arthropods and humans, with no intermediate stop in a bird or small mammal.
Because the arboviruses require an arthropod to pass them along to humans, the most common times of year for these illnesses include summer and fall, when mosquitoes and ticks are most prevalent. Damp environments favor large populations of mosquitoes, and thus also increase the risk of arbovirus infections.
The major causes of arbovirus encephalitis include the members of the viral families alphavirus (causing Eastern equine encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis), flavivirus (responsible for St. Louis encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, Tick-borne encephalitis, Murray Valley encephalitis, Russian spring-summer encephalitis, and Powassan), and bunyavirus (causing California encephalitis).
In the United States, the most important types of arbovirus encephalitis include Western equine encephalitis (WEE), Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), St. Louis encephalitis, and California encephalitis. WEE strikes young infants in particular, with a 5% chance of death from the illness. Of those who survive, about 60% suffer permanent brain damage. EEE strikes infants and children, with a 20% chance of death, and a high rate of permanent brain damage among survivors. St. Louis encephalitis tends to strike adults older than 40 years of age, and older patients tend to have higher rates of death and long-term disability from the infection. California virus primarily strikes 5-18 year olds, with a lower degree of permanent brain damage.
Causes and symptoms
Encephalitis occurs because specific arboviruses have biochemical characteristics which cause them to be particularly attracted to the cells of the brain and the nerves. The virus causes cell death and inflammation, with fever and swelling within the brain and nerves. The membranous coverings of the brain and spinal cord (the meninges) may also become inflamed, a condition called meningitis. The brain is swollen, and patches of bleeding occur throughout the brain and spinal cord.
Patients with encephalitis suffer from headaches, fever, nausea and vomiting, stiff neck, and sleepiness. As the disease progresses, more severe symptoms develop, including tremors, confusion, seizures, coma, and paralysis. Loss of function occurs when specific nerve areas are damaged and/or killed.
Early in the disease, laboratory testing of blood may reveal the presence of the arbovirus. The usual technique used to verify the presence of arbovirus involves injecting the patient's blood into the brain of a newborn mouse, then waiting to see if the mouse develops encephalitis. Diagnosis is usually based on the patient's symptoms, history of tick or mosquito bites, and knowledge that the patient has been in an area known to harbor the arbovirus.
Treatment is mostly supportive, meaning it is directed at improving the symptoms, but does not shorten the course of the illness. The main concerns of treatment involve lowering fever, treating pain, avoiding dehydration or other chemical imbalances, and decreasing swelling in the brain with steroids.
Prognosis depends on the particular type of arbovirus causing disease, and on the age and prior health status of the patient. Death rates range all the way up to 20% for arbovirus encephalitis, and the rates of lifelong effects due to brain damage reach 60% for some types of arboviruses.
Prevention involves avoiding contact with arthropods which carry these viruses. This means wearing
There are immunizations available against EEE and WEE. These have primarily been used to safeguard laboratory workers who have regular exposure to these viruses.
Ray, C. George. "Arthropod-Borne and Other Zoonotic Viruses." In Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. 3rd ed. Ed. Kenneth J. Ryan. Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1994.
Stoffman, Phyllis. The Family Guide to Preventing and Treating 100 Infectious Diseases. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.
Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Arthropods—A phylum name referring to certain insects (including mosquitoes and ticks) and spiders.
Encephalitis—A condition in which the brain swells.