East Tennessee mother warns of mosquito-borne disease

An East Tennessee mother is warning parents of a mosquito-borne illness after a scary experience with her young son.

Knoxville, Tenn. – These days, Michelle Ferguson cherishes every moment at home with her 7-year-old son, Bentley.

Two years ago, their time together was spent in a hospital room as Bentley was in a medically induced coma and living on a feeding tube.

“It was torture for him,” Ferguson said. “The whole experience was torture. I’ve never seen anyone suffer so badly.”

This torturous experiment began in Oliver Springs.

Bentley, who was 5 at the time, was on a trip to church with his family.

“The kids came out to play in this little grassy area and they were having so much fun,” Ferguson recalled. “They were playing in puddles and trying to find frogs.”

They were also bitten by mosquitoes. “We all actually got bitten by mosquitoes that day,” Ferguson said.

But not all of them experienced the same symptoms as Bentley.

Two days after being bitten, he woke up with a persistent headache. It persisted despite taking painkillers and was soon accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

It was then that Ferguson knew there was a bigger problem.

In the emergency room, Bentley’s symptoms worsened.

He began to have fever, hallucinations, severe headaches, sensitivity to light, and extreme agitation which required him to be immobilized for days.

He also started having seizures and was placed in an induced coma for nine days. Bentley spent 15 days in hospital before the virus started to fade.

“They ended up unloading him with a feeding tube because we couldn’t get him to eat and drink regularly enough,” Ferguson explained.

Back home, Bentley and her family finally received an official diagnosis. He was bitten by an infected mosquito and developed a virus called La Crosse encephalitis.

“I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve had several kids and never knew it was a risk to my kids,” Ferguson said.

According to Knox County’s senior epidemiologist, children under 16 are most at risk.

“You get bitten by a mosquito and usually you’re fine, but sometimes you can develop brain swelling which can cause quite significant illness,” explained Dr Corinne Tandy.

It is not known why the disease mainly affects children, but there are ways to protect them. Best practices are listed at the bottom of this article.

“It’s something to be aware of just because it can get quite serious,” Dr. Tandy said. “It’s important to have that awareness, especially in the summer months.”

Since Bentley’s diagnosis, raising awareness has been Ferguson’s mission.

“I had a perfectly healthy 5-year-old and all of a sudden his life and my life were turned upside down, just because of a mosquito bite,” Ferguson said.

She hopes no other parent goes through what she and her family went through. “Children are precious and please protect them,” Ferguson said.

Bentley is currently undergoing therapy for persistent neurological issues, but is doing much better overall.

In 2021, the Tennessee Department of Health reported seven probable and confirmed cases of La Crosse encephalitis, all in children younger than 11 years old.

Like Bentley, they all had neuroinvasive symptoms.

According to data for the past 10 years, cases of La Crosse encephalitis are typically reported in eastern Tennessee. Most were reported in Jefferson, Union, Grainger and Claiborne counties.

According to the CDC, Tennessee ranks third in the nation for most reported cases between 2011 and 2020.

The CDC lists these steps as best practices for protecting against mosquito bites:

  • Use insect repellents registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Cover strollers and baby carriers with a mosquito net
  • Take measures to control mosquitoes indoors and outdoors
  • Use screens on windows and doors
  • Prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs in or near water by emptying containers that hold water such as planters, garbage cans, buckets and toys.

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