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La Crosse encephalitis cases surface

Disease caused by a virus found in mosquitoes

WVU Charleston

CHARLESTON — A consequence of social distancing is that many children and families are rediscovering the great outdoors. 

While it  appears that this is a smart way for families to have fun in the coronavirus era, it is worth knowing that a few cases of a mosquito-borne disease called La Crosse encephalitis are now appearing in children from central and southern West Virginia. 

Dr. Jim McJunkin,  a pediatrician with WVU Pediatrics at Charleston Area Medical Center’s Women and Children’s Hospital, offers tips on how to reduce mosquito exposure while encouraging families to keep enjoying the   outdoors of West Virginia.

La Crosse encephalitis (meaning “inflammation of the brain”) is caused by a virus and it spreads through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Children under the age of 15 are most at risk, but the disease rarely occurs in adults. While most people with La Crosse infection don’t get sick, some may develop a mild illness with symptoms of headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness and confusion. In some severe cases, people may have seizures or go into a coma. La Crosse is rarely fatal, but children may have seizures or other problems after they get well.

The natural breeding sites of the “tree-hole mosquito” vector are the holes in hard-wood trees, but the mosquitoes especially like to breed in objects such as discarded tires that retain stagnant water. While it is true that children are at greater risk when they live or camp near the woods, perhaps an even greater risk is when they live on or near property where there are cans, bottles, tires or other water-holding containers in the yard or near play areas.

 McJunkin, whose research on La Crosse encephalitis was first published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001, said  it is typical in West Virginia for cases to first appear in early July and run through October. 

He said the incidence of the disease has been decreasing over the past decade in West Virginia, likely due to efforts of the state health department, along with the state REAP program. However, in July there were more than the expected number of cases for this time of year.

 McJunkin said   there are many things that you can do around your home and neighborhood to reduce your family’s risk of getting the disease.

 “A key to reducing the risk of mosquito-borne viruses is to remove standing water that is their breeding ground,” McJunkin said. “Getting rid of old tires and trash around your home, punching holes in the bottoms of trash barrels so they don’t hold water, cleaning and emptying water from flowerpots, birdbaths, swimming pool covers, buckets, and barrels at least once or twice a week will eliminate places for mosquitos to lay eggs.”

 McJunkin also suggested additional preventative measures:

 Check for clogged rain gutters and clean them out so they drain properly.

Maintain swimming pools or drain them completely.

  Weather permitting, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors.

·Make sure doors and screens are bug tight.

·Use insect repellents according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Those containing DEET should be used in concentrations of 30% or less in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Another benefit of repellants, especially those containing DEET or picaridin, is that they will repel not only mosquitoes but ticks as well. This is important since Lyme disease is increasing in West Virginia and can occur in children from a young age. 

· If your child feels ill, call their doctor to see if the child needs to be seen and how best to do so.

As a general health reminder, children should be updated on their immunizations.

While the overall incidence of La Crosse encephalitis in West Virginia is somewhat higher than states that lack its well-forested environment, it is still quite low as compared to coronovirus disease. Therefore,  McJunkin emphasizes that the benefits of the state’s outdoors are absolutely worth enjoying, and even more so in recent months, but he offers this information to help families to do so in the safest way for all concerned.

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