It wasn’t until the seizures started that Carissa Gambs realized her son was in serious danger.
As WKYC reports, Gambs’ 7-year-old son, Joshua Gay, woke up the day after a late August soccer game with a bad headache. At the time, he didn’t have any other symptoms, so she sent him to school as usual.
Over the next few days, Joshua developed a high fever. His mother, an emergency room nurse, monitored his condition and gave him medication for the fever, but didn’t suspect it was anything other than an ordinary virus. She told the Canton Repository, “I thought it was just an early flu or back-to-school germs.”
Joshua’s father, Brandon Gay, agreed: “There was nothing out of the ordinary. We didn’t have a reason to suspect anything.”
When her son’s fever didn’t improve, Gambs kept him home from school. Later, she went to check on him and found him having a seizure. When she turned him on his side, he vomited.
Joshua was taken to the emergency room and then transferred to Akron Children’s Hospital. That’s where testing revealed that Joshua had La Crosse encephalitis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), La Crosse encephalitis is a rare disease caused by a virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes. It begins with fever, headache, nausea, and fatigue. Severe cases involve swelling of the brain and can result in coma and paralysis.
On average, there are about 63 cases of La Crosse encephalitis in the U.S. every year. While most cases come from the southeastern states, mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, they can occur wherever mosquitoes are found. The disease affects children under 16 most severely and appears to be especially prominent in boys around Joshua’s age.
Gambs told WKYC how surprised she was to learn her son’s diagnosis: “The results had come back that a mosquito almost killed my child.”
It soon became clear that Joshua was very sick. When the mom learned her son had to be intubated, she realized how serious the situation was: “It kind of all hit me like ‘this is bad.’ This isn’t just a fever. Not a normal virus.”
There is no cure for La Crosse encephalitis. Doctors can only treat the symptoms. As Gambs told WKYC, “Prevention is the only thing you can do. Supportive measures is what they can do in severe cases which is what my son had.”
After a few weeks in the hospital, Joshua is back home. But he isn’t his old self yet. The virus can cause cognitive and neurological issues that will require the young boy to go through occupational and physical therapy. His mother wrote on Facebook:
My child is home, but my child is different. He looks normal and isn’t in a hospital anymore so he is presumed all better. This isn’t the case. I am brokenhearted and there is nothing I can do to fix this. He is easily agitated and angered which can last minutes or hours. Light and certain noises are upsetting to him. His behaviors are not always him. He tells me he is dumb and is afraid of dying. My sweet child is there but gets sidetracked by a brain injury that takes over. This is devastating to watch and I cannot even begin to imagine how he feels.
Gambs is hoping their family’s story will help raise awareness of the disease and spur better prevention measures.
According to the CDC, the best way to avoid La Crosse encephalitis is to prevent mosquito bites. That means wearing long sleeves and pants, using insect repellent with DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR3535, Picaridin, Para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
In addition, try to control the mosquito population both indoors and outdoors. Repair screens, use air conditioning if possible, and clean up any possible sites where mosquitoes could lay eggs.
Gambs says she hopes the local government will start spraying parks, playgrounds, and other mosquito-friendly areas. She’s had her own lawn sprayed the last three months and told the Repository, “It’s the best $75 I’ve ever spent.”