Eastern equine encephalitis patient makes ‘miraculous’ recovery at Auburn’s veterinary college

Published: December 05, 2018
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Her name is Faith, and call it name-sake irony, or divine providence, the 10-year-old Friesian mare has made a recovery nothing short of miraculous after being treated at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine for a disease that is usually fatal.

Faith was brought to the college’s J.T. Vaughan Large Animal Teaching Hospital this summer and was diagnosed to have contracted Eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE. The disease, commonly called Triple E or sleeping sickness, is a virus present in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. The mosquito-borne malady usually results in fatality for its equine victims.

“Triple E is similar to the West Nile virus, and it also can affect humans,” said veterinarian Dr. Kara Lascola, an associate professor of equine internal medicine with the Department of Clinical Sciences. “The disease among horses usually results in more than a 90 percent mortality rate. Recovery is very rare, especially recovery with no lasting side effects.”

But recovery without issues is exactly what happened with Faith, who is stabled in north Florida, but her owner, Kim Bracken, lives in Alabama.

“We first noticed that Faith was behaving oddly when she failed to come from the pasture at feeding time,” Bracken said. “This was the Monday before the July Fourth holiday and when we checked on her, she was displaying a low-grade fever. We treated her with medication and cold bathing, but by the next day, she was showing various neurological signs, like eye twitching and fast blinking and odd head movement.”

Bracken said some blood samples were taken to their local veterinarian, who after examination recommended Faith be referred to Auburn.

Faith was admitted to the large animal teaching hospital and remained a patient for 19 days. She was treated by Lascola and equine internal medicine resident Dr. Tamara Sierra Rodriguez.

Triple E is not contagious horse-to-horse or from horse-to-human, but it is reportable to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, according to Lascola.

“While there is a vaccine against Triple E, there is no specific medical treatment once a horse contracts the virus,” Lascola said. “Faith had been vaccinated in previous years, but not this year. Annual vaccination especially during the mosquito season is important for the best protection. While vaccination may not always be 100 percent effective, it is rare for a vaccinated horse to contract Triple E.”

For horses that do contract Triple E, the onset of symptoms is usually sudden and rapidly progressing, according to Lascola. Treatment involves mostly supportive care—efforts to reduce fever and inflammation by administrating anti-inflammatory drugs and/or steroids and IV fluids if needed. Recovery is critical in the first 48-72 hours and many animals don’t respond.

Lascola said that Faith was always able to eat and drink, and she never could not stand.

“This is a very unusual response, and it was one that gave us hope,” Lascola said.

After 19 days of care, Faith was discharged and given a long-term course of steroids, Sierra Rodriguez said, and has been given a clean bill of health.

Bracken says that Faith is still not displaying any signs of neurological of post-illness side effects. “I am getting ready to get back on her,” Bracken said.

“This is the first case of Triple E that I have seen with this good of an outcome,” Lascola said.

The College of Veterinary Medicine is the South's original and nation's seventh oldest veterinary medical program, celebrating 126 years. We prepare individuals for careers of excellence in veterinary medicine, including private and public practice, industrial medicine, academics, and research. The college provides programs of instruction, research, outreach, and service that are in the best interests of the citizens of the state of Alabama, the region, the nation, and the world.