East Tennessee mother warns of mosquito-borne disease

A mother in eastern Tennessee warns parents about a mosquito-borne disease after a frightening 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, they spent their time together in a hospital room where Bentley was in a coma due to medical treatment and living out of a feeding tube.

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

That tormenting experience began in Oliver Springs.

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

“The kids went out to play in this little grassy area, and they had a great time,” Ferguson recalls. They were playing in the ponds and trying to find frogs.

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

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

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

That’s when Ferguson learned there was a bigger problem.

In the emergency room, Bentley’s symptoms escalated.

He began experiencing fever, hallucinations, severe headaches, sensitivity to light, and extreme agitation that required him to be confined for days.

He also began having epileptic fits and was placed in a medical coma for nine days. Bentley spent 15 days in the hospital before the virus started to wear off.

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

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

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Ferguson said. “I had many children and I never knew this was such a danger to my children.”

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

“You get bitten by a mosquito and you’re usually fine, but sometimes you can get some brain swelling that can cause a very serious illness,” explained Dr. Corinne Tandy.

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

“It’s something you should only be aware of because it can become very dangerous,” said Dr. Tandy. “It’s important to have that awareness, especially during the summer months.”

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

“I had a healthy 5-year-old who suddenly had his life and mine turned upside down, just because of one mosquito bite,” Ferguson said.

She hopes no other parent will suffer from what she and her family did. “Children are precious and please protect them,” Ferguson said.

The Bentley is now undergoing treatment for its chronic neurological problems but overall it is doing much better.

In 2021, the Tennessee Department of Health reported seven probable and confirmed cases of lacrosse encephalitis, all of them in children younger than 11.

Like Bentleys, they all showed neurological symptoms.

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

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

The CDC lists these steps as best practices to protect against mosquito bites:

  • Use an EPA-registered insect repellent.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Cover strollers and baby carriers with a mosquito net
  • Take steps to control mosquitoes indoors and out
  • Use screens on windows and doors
  • Prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs in or near water by emptying water containers such as farms, garbage containers, buckets and toys

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