A New South Wales man has become the second Australian to be confirmed dead from an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV), as authorities in four states are urging people to avoid mosquito bites to reduce their chances of infection. After Victoria announced the death of a man in his 60s in northern Victoria on February 28, New South Wales authorities confirmed today that an autopsy revealed the cause of the death of a man in his 70s from Griffiths last month. The virus has been present in parts of far northern Australia since the 1990s including the Tiwi Islands and Cape York Summit in northern Australia, but the tropical disease has never been recorded. University of Queensland virologist Judy Peters said the weather conditions associated with La NiƱa had created “excellent environmental conditions” for the virus to spread. Woman smiling and wearing a white shirt with a black jacket over it. The way the virus spreads is surprising, says University of Queensland virologist Judy Peters.

‘They propagate very quickly during flood events,’ she said. According to her, flooding in northern Australia caused a migration of birds to the south that was part of the ‘Japanese encephalitis cycle.’ ‘Waterfowl in particular, they’re going to get infected, develop a lot of virus in their bloodstream, and then infect another mosquito and that’s driving this cycle of transmission,’ Dr. Peters said. She also said infected pigs could also contribute to transmission.

‘Pigs develop enough virus in their bloodstream to infect another mosquito that comes in and bites it, so that’s clearly what happened and why it spreads on pig farms.’ Dr Peters said that while experts believed JEV could spread further in mainland Australia, the distance it went undetected was surprising. Authorities say Japanese encephalitis cannot spread from person to person. It is a disease transmitted by mosquitoes and although people can catch it from mosquitoes, insects can only pick up the virus from animals and birds. Dr. Peters said mosquitoes were not able to spread Japanese encephalitis by biting an infected person and spreading it to another person.

‘The virus can’t spread from person to person,’ she said. ‘It has to be done by a mosquito bite and humans don’t develop enough virus in their system to infect another mosquito.’ ‘The mosquito has to catch it either from a bird or from a swine.’ Victoria’s deputy health chief, Deborah Friedman, said the fact that Japanese encephalitis has not spread among people means it will not lead to a pandemic. ‘Because Japanese encephalitis is not transmitted from human to human, it does not have the potential to cause a pandemic in the way that influenza or coronavirus can,’ she said. It is rare for people who are seriously ill to become seriously ill

Most people who get Japanese encephalitis have no symptoms, or have very mild symptoms and recover completely. It is believed that only 20 percent of people with Japanese encephalitis develop any symptoms and that only a small number of them develop significant symptoms.

But as the name implies, the disease can lead to serious inflammation of the brain. ‘Most people who have contracted Japanese encephalitis will not even know they have it,’ Dr. Peters said. ‘Only a small percentage of people may develop symptoms, which will be mild and even fewer will become seriously ill.’ Anyone who experiences a sudden onset of fever, headache and vomiting as well as seizures or confusion should seek urgent medical attention. This disease is of particular concern to the elderly and young adults. Children younger than five years of age and older adults with Japanese encephalitis are more likely to develop a more serious illness. Those who work with pigs may be more susceptible to infection

Currently, birds and pigs are known to be able to communicate the virus through mosquito bites, and the outbreak appears to have spread in southeastern Australia through pig farms. Very few cases of infected people, including the Victorian man who died, have been linked to pigs.

People who raise pigs are urged to be vaccinated to prevent Japanese encephalitis virus. Federal Agriculture Secretary David Littleproud said authorities are closely monitoring hog detections across the country. ‘Swines actually exacerbate and increase  the virus and that’s why pigs are so vulnerable,’ he said However, he said eating pork does not pose a health risk. ‘Pig products are still safe,” said Mr. Littleproud. ‘You can still go and enjoy Australian pork.’ There is a targeted vaccine batch, but it hasn’t been recommended for everyone yet. There is a vaccine for JEV, but so far it is mainly used by Australians traveling abroad. The Victorian government says it is working to make the Japanese encephalitis vaccine more widely available.

Currently, vaccination is really recommended for people who works with or near swines, including transport workers or veterinarians who have regular contact with pig farms and those who kill or hunt pigs. Victoria says she did not need the vaccine before, but will now make it available through public health units, particularly in the north of the state in areas where pigs are located and along the northern rivers of the state. People should make an effort to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes

Health authorities across the country are “strongly advising” people to take steps to reduce their exposure to mosquitoes and to avoid mosquito habitats such as standing water. Experts say the focus should be on preventing bites by taking measures such as using insect repellents containing DEET, and wearing closed shoes and loose-fitting, light-colored clothing to cover arms and legs. 

“We have to understand that this change in climate brings with it some risks. This brings risks that we have not seen before, especially in southern parts of Australia,”  Mr Littleproud said, admitting that climate change was playing a role in the spread of JEV. Meanwhile, virologists say the spread of JEV in southeastern Australia was likely driven by wet weather, and they warn that climate change could make it worse.

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