LANSING, Mich. - Travis Thelen of Fowler, Mich., looks like a typical 10-year-old boy enjoying his summer. But this past year has been anything but typical for him. The first hint of trouble came last August.
"He just started running a fever one day and complaining of a bad headache," said Travis' mother Marti Thelen.
Thelen said the fever faded, but he developed another problem.
"He just complained that the top of his thigh hurt. He always just said, 'My leg hurts. My leg hurts,'" she said.
They saw a chiropractor and their family doctor. But when Travis began falling down, they realized something was seriously wrong.
"They admitted us into Sparrow Hospital. That was on Friday. By Sunday he wasn't walking at all. It went from a fever to not walking," his mother said.
The weakness spread to his left arm and hand. The diagnosis was West Nile virus.
"The nurse came into the room and she said, 'Wow! They are thinking he has the West Nile virus, that is rare in children,' And I said, 'I'm not worried about that,' and she said, 'You might want to be,'" said Thelen. "They day they sent us home in a wheelchair was the worst for him...for me. Because you don't know."
Last summer, West Nile virus sickened 5,674 people across the United States -- 286 people died. Michigan was especially hard-hit.
"These viruses tend to pop up in cycles sometimes," said Dr. Michael Kaufman, a mosquito expert at Michigan State University.
Kaufman's lab tests thousands of pools of mosquitoes each summer, looking for the West Nile virus and other illnesses.
"There are 60 mosquito species in Michigan and really only two, or perhaps three, of them are involved in West Nile," he said.
Kaufman says two species of Culex mosquitoes typically are to blame.
"They are not the type that you find swarming on you during the day," he said.
These mosquitoes are sneakier and nicknamed "house mosquitoes" because they often sneak in through holes in screens. They typically feed between dusk and dawn and actually prefer to bite birds.
These mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, such as storm drains and flower pots. They favor the very hot, dry conditions of last summer.
"If you get into a more typical summer pattern of rainfall, that can actually flush them out of their habitat," Kaufman said.
Kaufman says this summer's early and frequent rains should help reduce the risk of West Nile, but the threat is still there.
At the Michigan Department of Community Health, Dr. Kimberly Signs warns they expect to see human cases in Michigan this summer.
"People need to be aware that when they are outdoors and recreating, they should use mosquito repellent," said Signs. "These mosquitoes live around our home, they breed around our homes in small collections of water, so you need to check around your house, empty any buckets or pails, make sure your screens and windows are in good repair."
Travis spent countless hours in therapy learning to walk again. His spirits were lifted by visits from the Fowler High School football team and the Michigan State basketball team.
Now, 9 months later, the Thelens call Travis their "walking miracle." He is still regaining his strength but is looking forward to playing 5th grade basketball in the fall.
Marti Thelen said she to avoid putting repellents with DEET on her kids because she was worried about the chemicals. She has changed her mind about that and now makes sure everyone is protected against mosquitoes before heading outdoors.
"The attitude has changed. We are much more knowledgeable about mosquitoes than we were," said Thelen. "I don't want people to be afraid. West Nile virus really isn't a big deal for most people. It is rare, severe cases that end up like Travis. I don't think people should shut themselves up in their houses, but don't be afraid to use the mosquito spray and just be aware."
For more information about the West Nile virus in Michigan click here.
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