With Japanese encephalitis infection rates in Cambodia among the highest in Southeast Asia, and cases on the rise, the National Immunisation Program (NIP) is planning to introduce vaccines across the country by 2016.
More common in Asia, Japanese encephalitis is a potentially fatal viral disease that is the leading cause of encephalitis, or brain swelling. Transmitted by mosquitoes that breed in flooded rice fields, it is endemic to Cambodia, especially in rural areas, due to the prevalence of extensive mosquito breeding grounds, according to research from the World Health Organization.
Cases mostly occur in children under the age of 15 years, and although the majority of infections are asymptomatic, one in 250-500 cases develop into encephalitis, with 20 to 30 per cent of severe cases leading to death. In 2013, Cambodia had 41 laboratory-confirmed cases, a number that represents only about 5 to 10 per cent of the estimated total, according to Dr Kim Fox, WHO immunisation unit technical officer.
“[The disease] is a burden to Cambodia . . . and the numbers have stayed the same and not gone down because we don’t have a national immunisation program for the disease,” said Dr Denis Laurent, deputy director of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital, which independently administers the vaccine in their Phnom Penh hospital and affiliate Jayavarman VII Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap.
In a statement released on Saturday, Kantha Bopha founder and head Dr Beat Richner said 1,045 children in Phnom Penh and 825 in Siem Reap had to be hospitalised in January alone due to encephalitis – a 20 per cent increase from last year.
Kantha Bopha is advocating for the Japanese encephalitis vaccines to be included in Cambodia’s routine immunisation – a request that the NIP said it will grant by early 2016.
In mid-January, the NIP started offering the new vaccine free of charge in six high-risk provinces, deputy manager Ork Vichit said yesterday. “The vaccine is expensive . . . but we have now secured funding, we plan to introduce a mass vaccination campaign in the country.”
The US-based Program for Appropriate Technology in Health will fund the pilot program until the end of 2015, while the vaccine alliance GAVI will finance national inoculation efforts for five years starting in 2016, at the end of which the Cambodian government will take over funding, Vichit added.
“We recognise that the disease is an issue . . . and we’re expanding our efforts to prevent its onset.”