La Crosse encephalitis risk up

Heavy spring rain increases mosquito hatches

Local health and vector experts say people in the La Crosse area need to be on the lookout for a dangerous disease.

Mosquitoes can carry viruses causing encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, which in serious cases can cause lasting brain damage or even death.

While spending time outdoors at Mryick Park, uninvited guests can get the best of Dean Sonsalla and his son, Cooper.

Cooper “got bit the other day,” Sonsalla said. “It happens, but we try to stay on top of it.”

“They make me scratch,” Cooper said.

Mosquitoes can also bring encephalitis, specifically La Crosse encephalitis, first discovered in the region about 50 years ago.

“It’s a disease that affects the brain,” Sonsalla said. “Obviously, as a parent, that would be concerning.”

“Unfortunately with the La Crosse virus, there are some cases, generally involving children, that can be very, very severe,” said Dave Geske, La Crosse County vector control manager.

Geske said a high percentage of children who had La Crosse encephalitis developed lasting central nervous system problems such as learning disabilities or seizures.

“It’s one we take really, really seriously here,” he said.

Geske said the La Crosse area has the most recorded cases of La Crosse encephalitis in the nation, and while there haven’t been any reported cases in the county in years, this year, the chances for an outbreak are higher.

“Anytime we have heavy rainfall, it’s higher,” he said, explaining that the heavy spring rain this year means bigger mosquito hatches.

“We can’t let our guard down. This is a growing problem,” said Dr. William Agger, infectious disease physician at Gundersen Health System.

Agger said he’s seeing more mosquito carrying viruses across the nation, including locally.

“I expect we’ll have a case or two,” he said. “They’re usually in outlying areas that don’t have good control.”

“If we don’t manage habitat, the risk is pretty great,” Geske said, “but I think we do.”

Geske works to get rid of the virus, and warns against habitats where mosquitoes carrying the virus can breed. That’s usually man-made containers such as tires, boats or buckets that hold water for a long time.

Agger said it’s best to clean out ponds or pools at least once a week, and Geske said if you notice any standing water, give the La Crosse County Health Department a call at (608)785-5875. Both recommend wearing insect repellent containing DEET.

According to Agger, symptoms of encephalitis usually start with a headache and extra sensitivity to light. It may also cause mental confusion, body aches and a fever. Those are similar to symptoms with other viruses, so it’s best to get a diagnosis from a doctor.