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 off a feeding tube.
"It was torture for him," Ferguson said. "The whole experience was torture. I've never seen someone hurt so badly."
That torturous experience began in Oliver Springs.
Bentley, who was 5 years old at the time, was on a church field trip with his family.
"The kids went out to play in just this small little grassy area and they were having such a good time," Ferguson recalled. "They were playing in puddles and trying to find frogs."
They were also getting bit by mosquitoes. "We actually all got bit by mosquitoes that day," Ferguson said.
But they did not all experience the same symptoms Bentley did.
Two days after getting bit, he woke up with a persistent headache. It lingered despite taking painkillers and was soon accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
That's when Ferguson knew there was a bigger problem.
In the emergency room, Bentley's symptoms escalated.
He began experiencing a fever, hallucinations, severe headaches, sensitivity to light and extreme agitation which required him to be restrained for days.
He also began experiencing seizures and was placed in a medically-induced coma for nine days. Bentley spent 15 days in the hospital before the virus began fading.
"They ended up discharging him with a feeding tube because we couldn't get his eating and drinking regular enough," Ferguson explained.
Back at home is where Bentley and his family finally received an official diagnosis. He was bit by an infected mosquito and developed a virus called La Crosse Encephalitis.
"I've lived here my whole life. I've had multiple children and I never knew that that was a risk for my kids," Ferguson said.
According to Knox County's lead epidemiologist, children younger than 16 are most at risk.
"You get bitten by a mosquito and usually you're fine, but sometimes you can develop some brain swelling that can cause pretty significant disease," Dr. Corinne Tandy explained.
It's not known why the disease mostly impacts kids 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 become quite serious," Dr. Tandy said. "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 perfectly healthy 5-year-old and all of a sudden, his life and my life was just turned upside down, just because of one mosquito bite," Ferguson said.
She hopes no other parent experiences what she and her family did. "Children are precious and please protect them," Ferguson said.
Bentley is now in therapy for lingering neurological issues but is overall doing much better.
In 2021, the Tennessee Department of Health reported seven probable and confirmed cases of La Crosse Encephalitis, all in kids younger than 11.
Like Bentley, they all displayed neuroinvasive symptoms.
According to data from the past 10 years, La Crosse Encephalitis cases are generally reported in the Eastern portion of Tennessee. Most have been reported in Jefferson, Union, Grainger and Claiborne counties.
According to the CDC, Tennessee ranks third in the nation for most cases reported between 2011 and 2020.
The CDC lists these steps as best practices for protection from mosquito bites:
- Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- Cover strollers and baby carriers with mosquito netting
- Take steps to control mosquitoes indoors and outdoors
- Use screens on windows and doors
- Stop mosquitoes from laying eggs in or near water by emptying water-holding containers such as planters, trash containers, buckets, and toys