Reporting Holly Wagner
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There’s a rise in cases of encephalitis that can severely affect, or even disable, young children in Minnesota.
Health officials, however, say it’s preventable.
Lacrosse Encephalitis is a mosquito-borne virus that attacks the nervous system.
While the number of cases has gone down dramatically over the last few years, the Health Department is now seeing a surge. Three children were hospitalized with the disease this summer, and the peak of mosquito season isn’t over.
The department has reported cases of Lacrosse Encephalitis in Wright, Carver and Stearns counties.
Ali Howe lives in Independence, Minn. Last week, mosquito control made a surprise visit to her home.
“I wasn’t expecting them this late in the summer,” she said.
The crew came to spray the marshy area around her house and warn her about a child who got terribly sick from a mosquito bite.
“He came up to me right away and let me know there was a diagnosis of lacrosse encephalitis in the area,” Howe said.
The disease mostly affects young children under the age of 16. Howe has two boys, Brodie and Ellis, ages 7 and 5.
“It’s very alarming to me,” she said. “It’s something you don’t to take a chance on. It’s not worth it.”
Health officials believe a wet spring and warm summer led to a rise in illnesses.
Epidemiologist Dave Neitzel said for a third of children who are infected, the impact is life changing – memory or concentration problems, learning disabilities and, in some cases, children are confined to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.
While mosquito control has been identifying, sampling and spraying potential breeding grounds, the Health Department is advising parents to make sure their children are wearing mosquito repellent.
“This is such an easy preventable disease,” Neitzel said.
Howe has been warning her neighbors and friends about it, and protecting her boys as much as she can.
“He did say it’s very rare. But when it’s in your area, it doesn’t matter if it’s rare or not. It’s there,” she said.
Jim Stark, of Metropolitan Mosquito Control District, says the treehole mosquito that spreads the disease feeds during the day, unlike other mosquitoes that feed at dawn and dusk. The treehole also likes shady, wooded areas, and typically breeds in small containers with standing water like pots, pop cans, toys, or old tires.
In addition to wearing repellent, Stark said people should make sure there aren’t small places like those described above in the yard for mosquitoes to breed in.
Early symptoms of Lacrosse Encephalitis include fever, headache and seizure. Health officials say the illness rapidly progresses.