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Japanese encephalitis was spotted in Australia. What do we know about it?

Officials expect cases to surge.

Japanese encephalitis was spotted in Australia. What do we know about it?
Macro of mosquito sucking blood. dimarik/iStock

Japanese encephalitis is a viral disease caused by the mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV). It is spread through mosquito bites and some animals such as pigs and waterbirds serve as a host for the virus. Although it does not develop serious illness mostly, it can cause fever, joint pain, rash, or brain infection when contracted by humans.

Last week, NSW Health stated that the disease has been detected in pigs on pig farms in the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria. This was the first indicator that the virus is prevalent among the mosquitos of the area.

Now, it is confirmed that the virus has been detected in a New South Wales resident. The condition of the patient, who is in the intensive care unit, is reportedly stable. A number of more people are being tested, and more cases are expected to be confirmed in the following weeks.

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What is the Japanese encephalitis virus?

Japanese encephalitis is a virus from the Flaviviridae family, just like dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile viruses. The first case was documented in Japan in 1871. And currently, almost 68,000 cases of Japanese encephalitis are reported annually worldwide, with 13,600 to 20,400 fatalities. The disease is endemic to Asia and Australia, and Domestic pigs and wild birds are the most common reservoirs of the virus. 

How serious is the situation?

The Japanese encephalitis virus cannot be caught by eating pork or transmitted from person to person. It is spread through mosquitos. "There is no specific treatment for JE or other mosquito-borne viruses. The best way to avoid infection is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes" said Dr. Kerry Chant, the chief health officer of New South Wales.

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Three vaccines for the disease are available: SA14-14-2, IXIARO, and ChimeriVax-JE. But other than that, the only prevention seems to be avoiding mosquito bites.

Humans can usually recover from the sickness with no apparent symptoms, however, it's also worth noting that one out of every 250 infections results in a serious clinical illness. 

The common symptoms seen in infected people are fever, headache, and joint pain. However, severe cases may also experience neck stiffness, seizures, and very rarely coma and death. And the infection can only be confirmed via testing cerebrospinal fluid, a liquid found in the brain and spinal cord, or blood.

“NSW Health is cautioning people undertaking outdoor activities such as camping and fishing to carefully consider their plans. This is especially important for people planning activities near waterways or where mosquitoes are present, particularly the Murray River and its branches,” Dr. Marianne Gale, NSW Health Acting Chief Health Officer said.

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However, such measures as reducing the time being spent outdoors, applying insect repellents, or wearing clothes covering the body can work only temporarily. We seem to have no chance other than observing the precautions that'll be taken by health authorities.

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