Ex-Sen. Hagan recovering from tick-borne encephalitis

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Tick-borne encephalitis is not something that we see commonly here, an expert says. (Gerry Broome)

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is recovering from encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, caused by a rare virus spread by ticks from animals to humans, according to her doctor and family.

Hagan's husband says she has improved since moving to an Atlanta rehab center three weeks ago, but the recovery process will be long.

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According to health experts, recovery from viral encephalitis varies case by case, with differing symptoms.

In extreme cases, encephalitis can cause long-term brain damage or even death.

"It's very hard to find a diagnosis for it because the symptoms are very similar no matter what's causing your encephalitis. Oftentimes people have very bad headache, confusion, mental status changes," said Dr. Zack Moore, Acting State Epidemiologist and Epidemiology Section Chief with the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

Moore said encephalitis can be caused by a number of viruses, the most common of which is transmitted by mosquitos.

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Encephalitis caused by ticks is uncommon in North Carolina and more likely to occur in the upper Midwest and Northeast.

"Tick-borne encephalitis is not something that we see commonly here, so when we do hear about those types of cases, it's more likely they were exposed elsewhere," said Moore.

READ MORE: Kay Hagan, former NC senator, rushed to the hospital

Researchers estimate about 20,000 cases of encephalitis occur each year in the U.S.

There were 13 cases of encephalitis caused by insects reported in North Carolina in 2016, according to NC DHHS.

Those who contract it have to undergo specialized testing.

In less severe cases, patients can make a full recovery.

The former senator initially was in a Washington hospital in December and was later in Chapel Hill. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008 and served through 2014.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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