State public health officials today announced the season's first death from the mosquito-borne illness La Crosse viral encephalitis or LAC.
The child who was from Swain County was hospitalized in July and died a week later. Although preliminary testing was not conclusive, later specimens sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed LAC as the cause of illness and subsequent death.
According to officials this is the first reported LAC death in North Carolina since 2001, when a Transylvania County resident died of the illness.
While LAC is rarely fatal, the disease can have long-lasting negative effects on a person's health, so prevention is especially important. Children under 16 years of age and the elderly are the most susceptible to the disease.
"This child's death is a very sad and important reminder that people of all ages need to take precautions to prevent mosquito bites in North Carolina," said Dr. Jeffrey Engel, State Health Director. "Not only can mosquitoes here transmit La Crosse virus, but they can also be carriers of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, which can also cause serious illness. "The best way to avoid these diseases is to avoid mosquito bites," Engel said. "You can protect yourself from most mosquito bites by applying mosquito repellents, avoiding mosquito-infested areas and by making your home or work environment less attractive to mosquitoes."
Symptoms of LAC in people occur from a few days to a couple of weeks after being bitten by an infected mosquito. These symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. In more severe cases convulsions and tremors can occur, and in rare cases coma and death can result.
While other mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus are found across the state, La Crosse encephalitis is largely confined to western North Carolina and is the state's most common mosquito-borne disease. Last year, eight LAC cases were recorded for the entire year. This year, nine LAC cases including six children have been recorded in North Carolina during the month of July alone; the cases were later confirmed through laboratory testing. Other possible cases are under investigation.
Most La Crosse cases appear in August and September, so state officials are concerned that this year could be more active than 2008. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records about 70 LAC cases in the U.S. each year.
People can protect themselves and their families from mosquito bites by applying mosquito repellents to their skin and clothing. The CDC recommends several repellents, including DEET, picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. According to the CDC, oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under age 3. Consumers should look for products that contain the CDC-recommended ingredients and follow all label instructions.
People can also fight the bite by wearing light-colored long pants and long-sleeved shirts and by reducing time spent in mosquito-infested areas outdoors, particularly in early morning and early evening hours when mosquitoes are most active.
Steps that people can take to make their homes less mosquito-friendly include:
1. Remove any containers that can hold water
2. keep rain gutters clean and in good repair
3. repair leaky outdoor faucets and change the water in bird baths and pet bowls at least twice a week
4. check and repair window and door screens.
These guidelines can be applied almost anywhere, such as work sites, church playgrounds and ball fields.