Federal health authorities are putting the nation on high alert, after more cases of Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV) emerged over the weekend.
The Department of Health has declared the JEV situation in Australia a “Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance”.
The government is signalling that a new vaccine rollout for JEV may be needed as nine cases of the mosquito-borne disease have been found in humans across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
“I have declared the JEV situation a Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance after determining a national approach is required in relation to coordination of health policy, interventions and public messaging,” says Dr Sonya Bennett, acting chief medical officer.
“A national working group of communicable disease, vaccine and arbovirus experts has been established to support the response, including mosquito surveillance and control measures and identification of those at direct risk, and for the rollout of vaccines. Public health communications regarding mosquito protection will target affected communities.”
“The Australian government’s health and agriculture departments are working very closely with their state government counterparts to ensure a swift and coordinated response.”
Vaccines for JEV have been available since the 1930s and are on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of essential medicines.
The declaration was made under the Emergency Response Plan for Communicable Disease Incidents of National Significance, in consultation with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
Widespread flooding across eastern Australia has seen mosquito numbers explode, with large areas of standing water creating perfect breeding conditions.
JEV is the primary cause of the brain infection Japanese encephalitis. The infection usually causes no symptoms, but in some cases can cause severe inflammation of the brain leading to headache, vomiting, fever, confusion, seizures, coma, permanent neurological complications and even death.
The virus is most common in pigs and horses but can also infect humans and other animals.
JEV can only be transmitted between humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. Direct human-to-human transmission is not possible. The virus also can’t be transmitted to humans by eating infected pork or pig products.
Thankfully, less than 1 per cent of people infected will develop serious symptoms, and the majority won’t develop any symptoms at all. But for those who do, the consequences can be devastating.
Besides the potential impact on humans, JEV can cause irreparable damage to livestock and has the potential to disrupt meat supplies and drive up supermarket prices even further.
“JEV is a mosquito-borne viral disease that can cause reproductive losses and encephalitis in some animals,” says David Littleproud, minister for agriculture and northern Australia.
“The disease occurs mostly in pigs and horses, but it can also cause serious illness in people, albeit in very rare cases.
“We’re asking pig and horse owners in eastern and southern Australia to be on the lookout for signs of JEV in their animals.
“If you think an animal has JEV, you must report it. Call your local vet or the national Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.”
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