The alphavirus western equine encephalitis (WEE) was first isolated in California in 1930 from the brain of a horse with encephalitis, and remains an important cause of encephalitis in horses and humans in North America, mainly in western parts of the USA and Canada. In the western United States, the enzootic cycle of WEE involves passerine birds, in which the infection is inapparent, and culicine mosquitoes, principally Cx. tarsalis, a species that is associated with irrigated agriculture and stream drainages. The virus has also been isolated from a variety of mammal species. Other important mosquito vector species include Aedes melanimon in California, Ae. dorsalis in Utah and New Mexico and Ae. campestris in New Mexico. WEE virus was isolated from field collected larvae of Ae. dorsalis, providing evidence that vertical transmission may play an important role in the maintenance cycle of an alphavirus.

Expansion of irrigated agriculture in the North Platte River Valley during the past several decades has created habitats and conditions favorable for increases in populations of granivorous birds such as the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, and mosquitoes such as Cx. tarsalis, Aedes dorsalis and Aedes melanimon. All of these species may play a role in WEE virus transmission in irrigated areas. In addition to Cx. tarsalis, Ae. dorsalis and Ae. melanimon, WEE virus also has been isolated occasionally from some other mosquito species present in the area. Two confirmed and several suspect cases of WEE were reported from Wyoming in 1994. In 1995, two strains of WEE virus were isolated from Culex tarsalis and neutralizing antibody to WEE virus was demonstrated in sera from pheasants and house sparrows. During 1997, 35 strains of WEE virus were isolated from mosquitoes collected in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

Human WEE cases are usually first seen in June or July. Most WEE infections are asymptomatic or present as mild, nonspecific illness. Patients with clinically apparent illness usually have a sudden onset with fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, anorexia and malaise, followed by altered mental status, weakness and signs of meningeal irritation. Children, especially those under 1 year old, are affected more severely than adults and may be left with permanent sequelae, which is seen in 5 to 30% of young patients. The mortality rate is about 3%.