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Vaccine is key to preventing outbreaks of Japanese encephalitis

© Reuters video
In India’s BRD Medical Hospital in Uttar Pradesh, a mother watches over her child who has contracted Japanese encephalitis. An outbreak has killed more than 800 people, most of them children.

By Stephenie Hollyman

NEW YORK, 5 October 2005 – In the crowded children’s ward of a hospital in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Ram Kumar desperately tries to revive his son Sagar, who is very sick. Doctors watch, knowing they have already done what they can to help the young boy, whose father brought him here after a three-day journey by oxcart. 

Seven-year-old Sagar has contracted Japanese encephalitis, a viral disease of the brain which can lead to paralysis, coma and death.

Thousands in this northern province have fallen ill since an outbreak of the disease, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, began in July during the monsoon.   More than 800 people have died in the past few weeks, most of them children. 

The outbreak could have been prevented if a comprehensive vaccination campaign had been organized earlier in this province. Japanese encephalitis is endemic in the area. 

According to the World Health Organization, about 1 in 300 infections results in symptomatic illness, which can be fatal in 30 per cent of cases. Patients who survive may be disabled for life. 

Preventing another epidemic

“It is so difficult to treat so many unconscious children at the same time,” says Dr. K. P. Kushwaha, a professor at BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. “It is very difficult to treat every child who is unconscious or who is gasping for breath.”

Dr. Marzio Babille, UNICEF’s Chief of Health in India, says that no less than three million doses of Japanese encephalitis vaccine need to be in place before the end of February 2006, in order to prevent a new epidemic during next year’s monsoon season. The monsoon creates pools of stagnant water, making it easier for mosquitoes to breed. 

Because the global market can only offer some 750,000 doses by next January,  Mr. Babille says that UNICEF and its partners need to accelerate the acquisition of alternative supplies from other sources in Asia, Thailand and Vietnam. 

“We cannot accept that in 2005 children die unnecessarily, because the vaccine is not available or poorly supplied. This is not acceptable for UNICEF and also for mothers and those children who survive who will have to bear the stigmata of this disease forever.”




5 October 2005:
UNICEF  correspondent Stephenie Hollyman reports on efforts to fight the Japanese encephalitis outbreak in India. Video courtesy Reuters.

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5 October 2005:
Dr. Marzio Babille, Chief of Health for UNICEF India, talks about the recent outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in the country's northern Uttar Pradesh province and the need to mobilize a comprehensive vaccination campaign.

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