Grace Davenport was worried. On July 23, her four-year-old son Samuel went into Mission Hospital for a mosquito bite. He spent four nights there before being released.
Since then the Black Mountain resident, through the Black Mountain Exchange on Facebook, has been making sure other people know about La Crosse encephalitis, a disease caused by mosquitoes that’s found more in Western North Carolina than elsewhere in the state, medical experts say.
The day before he was admitted into the hospital, Samuel was lethargic, a classic symptom of La Crosse encephalitis, his mother said. He didn't seem to recognize her.
Three-quarters of La Crosse encephalitis cases originate in Buncombe, Haywood, Transylvania, Jackson, Swain, Macon and Graham counties, said Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County medical director.
People can reduce their exposure to mosquito bites by tipping over or emptying containers in their yards – bird baths, gutters, toys, tires, puddles in plastic sheeting – that hold water and provide mosquitos with a place to breed (the tipping should be done after every rain, unless the vessels are moved or turned over to prevent rainwater from collecting).
Most of the mosquitoes that carry La Crosse encephalitis breed in tree holes, where branches have broken off and left a declivity.
“We can’t help that we live in a place that has lots of trees, so (the disease) can be hard to eliminate,” Mullendore said. “But we can reduce the breeding sites.”
And people can use insect repellent when the bugs are most active, which is early morning and early evening, she said. Mosquitoes are out all day, so a repellent like DEET or one registered with the EPA will help keep them away.
Buncombe County experiences a few reported cases a year, Mullendore said (it has had a reported three cases so far this year, she said). La Cross encephalitis can cause seizures, headache, nausea, lethargy, even paralysis and death. Nationwide, it’s found most often in the Appalachian Mountains region. It tends to peak in early fall.
“Anywhere in Western North Carolina is at risk for La Crosse encephalitis,” said Brian Byrd, a medical entomologist who runs the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Disease Facility at Western Carolina University, which focuses on domestic mosquito-borne diseases in WNC. The disease “can certainly be devastating to the family, but it’s rarely fatal,” he said. He remembers only two fatalities in the region – both children – in the 10 years he’s been at the university.
“This is the time of year we talk about the ‘3Ds,'” he said – drain standing water, apply DEET and dress appropriately by covering arms and legs.
Samuel is doing fine now, his mother said. She makes sure he and her other two children are protected with bug spray. But, she did before, she said. The family hikes, and the kids play outside. "'Natural' mammas don't like DEET, but what can you do? It's summer," she said.