Although it is much more common than bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis is typically less severe. Many different viruses can lead to meningitis as a sequela of the primary infection, including those that cause herpes, influenza, measles, and mumps. Most cases of viral meningitis spontaneously resolve, but severe cases do occur.
Several types of insect-borne viruses can cause encephalitis. Collectively, these viruses are referred to as arboviruses (because they are arthropod-borne), and the diseases they cause are described as arboviral encephalitis. Most arboviruses are endemic to specific geographical regions. Arborviral encephalitis diseases found in the United States include eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), western equine encephalitis (WEE), St. Louis encephalitis, and West Nile encephalitis (WNE). Expansion of arboviruses beyond their endemic regions sometimes occurs, generally as a result of environmental changes that are favorable to the virus or its vector. Increased travel of infected humans, animals, or vectors has also allowed arboviruses to spread into new regions.
In most cases, arboviral infections are asymptomatic or lead to a mild disease. However, when symptoms do occur, they include high fever, chills, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and restlessness. In elderly patients, severe arboviral encephalitis can rapidly lead to convulsions, coma, and death.
Mosquitoes are the most common biological vectors for arboviruses, which tend to be enveloped ssRNA viruses. Thus, prevention of arboviral infections is best achieved by avoiding mosquitoes—using insect repellent, wearing long pants and sleeves, sleeping in well-screened rooms, using bed nets, etc.
Diagnosis of arboviral encephalitis is based on clinical symptoms and serologic testing of serum or CSF. There are no antiviral drugs to treat any of these arboviral diseases, so treatment consists of supportive care and management of symptoms.
Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is caused by eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV), which can cause severe disease in horses and humans. Birds are reservoirs for EEEV with accidental transmission to horses and humans by Aedes, Coquillettidia, and Culex species of mosquitoes. Neither horses nor humans serve as reservoirs. EEE is most common in US Gulf Coast and Atlantic states. EEE is one of the more severe mosquito-transmitted diseases in the United States, but fortunately, it is a very rare disease in the United States.
Western equine encephalitis (WEE) is caused by western equine encephalitis virus (WEEV). WEEV is usually transmitted to horses and humans by the Culex tarsalis mosquitoes and, in the past decade, has caused very few cases of encephalitis in humans in the United States. In humans, WEE symptoms are less severe than EEE and include fever, chills, and vomiting, with a mortality rate of 3–4%. Like EEEV, birds are the natural reservoir for WEEV. Periodically, for indeterminate reasons, epidemics in human cases have occurred in North America in the past. The largest on record was in 1941, with more than 3400 cases.
St. Louis encephalitis (SLE), caused by St. Louis encephalitis virus (SLEV), is a rare form of encephalitis with symptoms occurring in fewer than 1% of infected patients. The natural reservoirs for SLEV are birds. SLEV is most often found in the Ohio-Mississippi River basin of the central United States and was named after a severe outbreak in Missouri in 1934. The worst outbreak of St. Louis encephalitis occurred in 1975, with over 2000 cases reported. Humans become infected when bitten by C. tarsalis, C. quinquefasciatus, or C. pipiens mosquitoes carrying SLEV. Most patients are asymptomatic, but in a small number of individuals, symptoms range from mild flu-like syndromes to fatal encephalitis. The overall mortality rate for symptomatic patients is 5–15%.
Japanese encephalitis, caused by Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV), is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable encephalitis in humans and is endemic to some of the most populous countries in the world, including China, India, Japan, and all of Southeast Asia. JEV is transmitted to humans by Culex mosquitoes, usually the species C. tritaeniorhynchus. The biological reservoirs for JEV include pigs and wading birds. Most patients with JEV infections are asymptomatic, with symptoms occurring in fewer than 1% of infected individuals. However, about 25% of those who do develop encephalitis die, and among those who recover, 30–50% have psychiatric, neurologic, or cognitive impairment. Fortunately, there is an effective vaccine that can prevent infection with JEV. The CDC recommends this vaccine for travelers who expect to spend more than one month in endemic areas.
As the name suggests, West Nile virus (WNV) and its associated disease, West Nile encephalitis (WNE), did not originate in North America. Until 1999, it was endemic in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; however, the first US cases were identified in New York in 1999, and by 2004, the virus had spread across the entire continental United States. Over 35,000 cases, including 1400 deaths, were confirmed in the five-year period between 1999 and 2004. WNV infection remains reportable to the CDC.
WNV is transmitted to humans by Culex mosquitoes from its natural reservoir, infected birds, with 70–80% of infected patients experiencing no symptoms. Most symptomatic cases involve only mild, flu-like symptoms, but fewer than 1% of infected people develop severe and sometimes fatal encephalitis or meningitis. The mortality rate in WNV patients who develop neurological disease is about 10%.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology