Japanese Encephalitis in India: Civil Services Mentor Magazine February 2013


Japanese encephalitis (JE)- epidemics have been reported in many parts of the country. The incidence has been reported to be high among pediatric group with high mortality. The incidence of JE in recent times is showing an increasing trend. It appears that JE may become one of the major public health problems in India, considering the quantum of the vulnerable pediatric population, the proportion of JEV infections among the encephalitic children and wide scattering of JE-prone areas. JE burden can be estimated satisfactorily to some extend by strengthening diagnostic facilities for JE confirmation in hospitals and by maintenance of contact with the nearby referral hospitals to collect the particulars on JE cases. Vaccination proves to be the best to protect the individual against any disease. In the case of JE, it is essential to immunize the pigs (amplifying host) also to interrupt the transmission of the disease.

Japanese encephalitis—previously known as Japanese B encephalitis to distinguish it from von Economo’s A encephalitis— is a disease caused by the mosquito- borne Japanese encephalitis virus. The Japanese encephalitis virus is a virus from the family Flaviviridae. Domestic pigs and wild birds (herons) are reservoirs of the virus; transmission to humans may cause severe symptoms. Amongst the most important vectors of this disease are the mosquitoes Culex tritaeniorhynchus and Culex vishnui. This disease is most prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Far East.

What is Japanese Encephalitis (JE)?

JE is the mosquito-borne virus which mainly affects the CNS or Central Nervous System. It can be transmitted to human beings if infected mosquito bites. Mosquitoes in turn are affected when they feed on domestic pigs that carry this virus. JE usually affects children who are below 15 years of age. Around 25 percent affected children usually die and among those who survive, 30-40 percent suffers from mental and physical impairment. In 2011, it was reported that JE had occurred in 135 districts in 17 states of India. Japanese encephalitis has an incubation period of 5 to 15 days and the vast majority of infections are asymptomatic: only 1 in 250 infections develop into encephalitis. Severe rigors mark the onset of this disease in humans. Fever, headache and malaise are other nonspecific symptoms of this disease which may last for a period of between 1 and 6 days. Signs which develop during the acute encephalitic stage include neck rigidity, cachexia, hemiparesis, convulsions and a raised body temperature between 38 and 41 degrees Celsius. Mental retardation developed from this disease usually leads to coma. Mortality of this disease varies but is generally much higher in children. Transpla- cental spread has been noted. Lifelong neurological defects such as deafness, emotional lability and hemiparesis may occur in those who have had central nervous system involvement. In known cases some effects also include nausea, headache, fever, vomiting and sometimes swelling of the testicles.

Japanese encephalitis (JE) is the leading cause of viral encephalitis in Asia, with 30,000–50,000 cases reported annually. Case-fatality rates range from 0.3% to 60% and depends on the population and on age. Rare outbreaks in U.S. territories in Western Pacific have occurred. Residents of rural areas in endemic locations are at highest risk; Japanese encephalitis does not usually occur in urban areas. Countries which have had major epidemics in the past, but which have controlled the disease primarily by vaccination, include China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. Other countries that still have periodic epidemics include Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Nepal, and Malaysia. Japanese encephalitis has been reported on the Torres Strait Islands and two fatal cases were reported in mainland northern Australia in 1998. The spread of the virus in Australia is of particular concern to Australian health officials due to the unplanned introduction of Culex gelidus, a potential vector of the virus, from Asia. However, the current presence on mainland Australia is minimal.

Human, cattle and horses are dead-end hosts and disease manifests as fatal encephalitis. Swine acts as amplifying host and has very important role in epidemiology of the disease. Infection in swine is asymptomatic, except in pregnant sows, when abortion and fetal abnormalities are common sequelae. The most important vector is Culex tritaeniorhynchus, which feeds on cattle in preference to humans, it has been proposed that moving swine away from human habitation can divert the mosquito away from humans and swine. The natural host of the Japanese encephalitis virus is bird, not human, and many believe the virus will therefore never be completely eliminated. In November 2011, Japanese encephalitis virus was reported in Culex bitaeniorhynchus in the Republic of Korea.

Increased microglial activation following JEV infection has been found to influence the outcome of viral pathogenesis. Microglia are the resident immune cells of the central nervous system (CNS) and have a critical role in host defense against invading microorganisms. Activated microglia secrete cytokines, such as interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-á), which can cause toxic effects in the brain. Additionally, other soluble factors such as neurotoxins, excitatory neurotransmitters, prostaglandin, reactive oxygen, and nitrogen species are secreted by activated microglia.

In a murine model of JE, it was found that in the hippocampus and the striatum, the number of activated microglia was more than anywhere else in the brain closely followed by that in the thalamus. In the cortex, number of activated microglia was significantly less when compared with other regions of the mouse brain. An overall induction of differential expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines from different brain regions during a progressive JEV infection was also observed. Although the net effect of the pro-inflammatory mediators is to kill infectious organisms and infected cells as well as to stimulate the production of molecules that amplify the mounting response to damage, it is also evident that in a non-regenerating organ such as brain, a deregulated innate immune response would be deleterious. In JE the tight regulation of microglia activation appears to be disturbed, resulting in an auto toxic loop of microglia activation that possibly leads to bystander neuronal damage. In animals, key signs include infertility and abortion in pigs, neurological disease in horses and systemic signs including fever, lethargy and anorexia.