Public health officials have reported that a child in Macon County has contracted LaCrosse Viral Encephalitis, a potentially serious illness carried and transmitted by mosquitoes.
While other mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus are found across the state, LaCrosse is largely confined to Western North Carolina. The disease is rarely fatal, but a Transylvania County girl died as a result of infection in 2001. And in 2009, a child in Cherokee died, adding new emphasis to health officials’ efforts to warn people about the potential dangers of LaCrosse.
There were 13 confirmed and potential cases identified in WNC in 2010.
Cherokee, in particular the Big Cove community, and Black Mountain — for unknown reasons — are recognized in the medical community as hotspots for the illness, said Dr. Penny O’Neill, a pediatrician with Sylva Pediatric Associates. But, as the case in Macon County shows, the dangers exist anywhere in the region.
The big month for outbreaks is usually August, but with one in WNC already identified, “we’ll go from now until the first killing frost” with outbreaks of LaCrosse, O’Neill said.
Stan Polanski, physician’s assistant for Macon County Public Health, said the child with LaCrosse is recovering. The last diagnosed case in Macon County was more than five years ago, he said.
Regionally, about 20 cases are reported each year.
“For every case we confirm, there are probably 20 to 50 unrecognized cases,” Polanski said.
In Cherokee, public health officials have crafted a two-part response to the problem.
On one side, they’ve long been educating parents, kids and the community at large on how to prevent mosquito’s and eliminate standing water that serves as breeding grounds.
“We’ve done mitigation in the community with everything from actually going out and doing community assessments to emptying stale water containers,” said Vickie Bradley, deputy health officer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Last year, the tribe also started a program in concert with Cherokee Indian Hospital to support families that are struggling with the long-road to recovery from an encephalitis infection. Dr. Anna Eastman, a consultant from the United Kingdom where there is an established post-infection support program, has come to Cherokee to train tribal health workers.
The danger posed by encephalitis is greatest for babies, O’Neill said, because they can have potentially devastating neurological issues. The intensity of the illnesses seem to vary from year to year, she said, but emphasized there is one important step people can take: Use DEET.
O’Neill said parents often express concerns about the mosquito repellent, but “the danger from DEET is potential — the danger from encephalitis is real.”
The object, the pediatrician said, is to eliminate mosquito bites, not just reduce the number received.
By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn • Staff writers
LaCrosse Viral Encephalitis
Symptoms occur from a few days to a couple of weeks after being bitten by an infected mosquito. These symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. In more severe cases, convulsions, tremors and coma can occur. Children under 16 years of age and the elderly are the most susceptible to the disease.
To reduce mosquito breeding areas:
• Remove any containers that can hold water.
• Keep gutters clean and in good repair.
• Repair leaky outdoor faucets and change the water in birdbaths and pet bowls at least twice a week.
• Use screened windows and doors and make sure screens fit tightly and are not torn.
• Keep tight-fitting screens or lids on rain barrels.