RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ In the cool hours of early morning or evening, the pastures at Charles and Sharon Locklear's farm are empty.

No horses graze contentedly in the twilight. They're shut in the barn, waiting for the hours when they'll be safest from tiny, deadly predators _ mosquitos that carry eastern equine encephalomyelitis, or EEE.

The disease is ravaging herds in the Southeast, largely because the summertime swarms of mosquitos have swelled because of the very wet weather. The mosquitos bite infected birds and then in turn bite other animals.

The Locklears breed and sell race horses for a living. Last month, one of their mares died of the disease.

Now, the Locklears keep their remaining six horses in the barn from late afternoon until about 9 each morning, then spray them with bug repellent before turning them outside.

``We're scared we're going to lose another one,'' Sharon Locklear said.

Also called eastern equine encephalitis, the disease is 70 percent to 90 percent fatal in horses. It is rare but dangerous in humans. This year, a 78-year-old man in Georgia and an 8-year-old Alabama boy have died from EEE.

The virus attacks the central nervous system, where it causes swelling of the brain, said Dr. Jim Guy, professor of veterinary virology at N.C. State University.

Symptoms in humans include fever, muscle pain, headache, paralysis and coma. Infected animals display blindness, inability to swallow and staggering.

Those symptoms are similar to rabies, and that makes a definite diagnosis essential, said Dr. David Marshall, North Carolina's state veterinarian.

Marshall said there is no effective treatment for EEE, but vaccinations are reasonable at $10 each. The virus can even infect those that have been vaccinated if the animal hasn't had booster shots.

Charles Locklear said his mare had been vaccinated, but hadn't received a booster _ something the couple has since added to their care regimen.

State agriculture officials say Robeson County, where the Locklears live, has the highest number of known EEE cases in North Carolina, which had 74 cases as of Wednesday.

Florida had the highest number of cases _ 186 _ followed by 120 in South Carolina. Georgia reported 51 cases. Cases also have been reported in Alabama and as far north as Maryland _ the first there in seven years.

Last year, cases ranged from 25 in Florida to one in South Carolina. North Carolina had three; the state's prior record was 18 in 2000.

Alabama state veterinarian Dr. Tony Frazier said he expects numbers to go up as long as the rain keeps up. His state's cases dropped to zero or single digits during drought years.

``It almost mirrors the amount of rainfall that we have,'' Frazier said.

Florida hadn't counted any new cases this week as of Wednesday _ a minor victory, said Lindsay Hodges, that state's health department spokeswoman.

That state has one of the nation's highest rates of concentration of horses per acre. Horse owner associations and health officials there are stressing vaccination.

``It's a big concern,'' said Mike Compton, editor of The Florida Horse, a monthly magazine published by the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association in Ocala. ``It seems they're finding that most of the horses that have contracted it or are dying from it are horses that haven't been vaccinated.

``The large farmers have the largest bankroll and they get the best of everything. What you're seeing is the backyard type of horse.''

N.C. State's Guy said the number of horses known to have been infected are likely a fraction of those that actually have the disease.

In many cases, veterinarians say, smaller horse farms don't want to spend hundreds of dollars for a blood test to confirm EEE.

``This has been a more serious outbreak than anything in our history,'' said Dr. Venaye Reece, the equine program coordinator in the South Carolina state veterinarian's office. ``Weather, mosquito hatch, bird migration. When it has the right conditions, this is what you get.''

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On the Net:

N.C Department of Agriculture: http://www.ncagr.com/

Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association: http://www/ftboa.com

Florida Department of Agriculture: http://doacs.state.fl.us/consumer/

U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/