From late summer into early fall, Greater Boston and much of New England were gripped by the fear of being bitten by mosquitoes infected with eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). Yet the disease, a deadly virus capable of causing brain swelling, is typically transmitted by a species of mosquito that prefers to bite livestock like horses and goats, and very rarely infects humans. So why were we so scared? Out of the hundreds of thousands (millions, more likely) of mosquito bites that people in Massachusetts experienced this year, there were 12 reported cases of human EEE infection, and tragically, three deaths. In contrast, complications from infection with the influenza virus are much more common—and estimated to kill between 250 and 1,100 Massachusetts residents each year. But even as flu season gets underway, the same collective alarm that we felt during the EEE scare is nowhere to be found.
Why aren’t we as collectively freaked out about flu season as we were about EEE being detected in local mosquitoes? In this one-on-one conversation, John Connor, a virologist at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), explains why sometimes our fears about diseases are misplaced.