BACKGROUND: The eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) and Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) viruses are pathogens that infect humans and horses in the Americas. Outbreaks of neurologic disease in humans and horses were reported in Panama from May through early August 2010. METHODS: We performed antibody assays and tests to detect viral RNA and isolate the viruses in serum samples from hospitalized patients. Additional cases were identified with enhanced surveillance. RESULTS: A total of 19 patients were hospitalized for encephalitis. Among them, 7 had confirmed EEE, 3 had VEE, and 1 was infected with both viruses; 3 patients died, 1 of whom had confirmed VEE. The clinical findings for patients with EEE included brain lesions, seizures that evolved to status epilepticus, and neurologic sequelae. An additional 99 suspected or probable cases of alphavirus infection were detected during active surveillance. In total, 13 cases were confirmed as EEE, along with 11 cases of VEE and 1 case of dual infection. A total of 50 cases in horses were confirmed as EEE and 8 as VEE; mixed etiologic factors were associated with 11 cases in horses. Phylogenetic analyses of isolates from 2 cases of equine infection with the EEE virus and 1 case of human infection with the VEE virus indicated that the viruses were of enzootic lineages previously identified in Panama rather than new introductions. CONCLUSIONS: Cases of EEE in humans in Latin America may be the result of ecologic changes that increased human contact with enzootic transmission cycles, genetic changes in EEE viral strains that resulted in increased human virulence, or an altered host range.
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