Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Sonya Bennett's interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing on 9 March 2022

Read the transcript of Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Sonya Bennett's interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing on 9 March 2022 about Japanese encephalitis.

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GREG JENNETT:    New South Wales Health has confirmed a man in his 70s from Griffith in the south west of the state who died last month had Japanese encephalitis. The man died on February 13, and after post-mortem testing, it's now been confirmed he had the disease which is spread by mosquitoes. That sad news comes after another man in Victoria became the first Australian confirmed to have died from this outbreak, and others are still being treated.

The acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Sonya Bennett gave us an update on all of this when we caught up with her a short time ago.

GREG JENNETT:    Sonya Bennett, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. It's of course distressing to hear of a fatality. But can you put into context for us this Japanese encephalitis outbreak, and the wider concerns around it. How alarmed should people in affected areas be?


SONYA BENNETT: Well, good afternoon, Greg. So, this outbreak we've known about now for just over a week, and I think what's concerning is that we became aware of a large number of infected piggeries at the same time, which was confirmed to be Japanese encephalitis virus. And we've not seen Japanese encephalitis virus in piggeries on the Australian mainland before, so we know about it as a virus. It's typically known as a travel disease, one which some travellers might be vaccinated against. We certainly have JEV outbreaks in the Torres Strait, and for that reason, there is a vaccination program there. But not this far south in Australia, so that was certainly alarming. But this virus is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. But the main way that mosquito gets infected is when it bites a pig with the disease.

GREG JENNETT:    Can I first try and get an assessment of how many people we know to be infected or being treated and or hospitalised at the moment?

SONYA BENNETT: So, we've got nine what we call confirmed cases in humans. And those cases are occurring- there's three different states; Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. There's a number of other cases in humans under investigation. The testing for this is not quite straightforward, and we do expect a few more to be confirmed over the coming days. And in humans, it's- it only manifests itself symptomatically in a very few number of cases. So even when people get bitten by an infected mosquito, by and large, they may not experience any symptoms. But in about one in 100 people who do, they can experience severe clinical illness in what we call encephalitis. And in those cases, so we have got three cases in in hospital, one in Queensland and two in New South Wales. And for those people, obviously, it is concerning. And can result, as we've seen in the case in Victoria, in a fatality.

GREG JENNETT:    Right. So amongst the others who aren't symptomatic, we don't have any assessment or knowledge of infection, just because they simply don't know themselves, is that right? And if it is, what then should anyone who is at risk from mosquitoes in those areas be doing?

SONYA BENNETT: So, that is right. I mean, there may well be people who haven't had any symptoms but have been exposed to an infected mosquito. I think what's important to say here, because we're all so used to COVID, is that it's not transmitted from human to human. So, those people may never know about it until they might have a blood test for whatever reason. But they're not a risk to other people, and they're not at risk of infecting mosquitoes. So that's important to know. We've heard a lot about the flooding, and people should certainly be protecting themselves against mosquitoes by wearing long, loose fitting clothing, using mosquito repellent and reapplying it when necessary. And other mosquito repellent devices inside and out the home- outside the home, which there's a wide variety. For those that are at risk of Japanese encephalitis, at the moment the public health authorities across the states and territories are identifying and in touch with people who, mainly who are entering or working in those affected piggeries, and they'll be directly in touch and be offered vaccination. But for everybody else; it's important, including those around the piggeries, just to continue to protect yourself against mosquitoes. And of course, if you do become unwell, to seek medical attention.

GREG JENNETT:    Right, so there's no advice, Sonya Bennett, for those who are outside of the piggeries - but let's say in townships nearby - to go to their GP and get a vaccination shot or anything like that?

SONYA BENNETT: No, not yet, Greg, because as I said, I think- once the risk in that particular piggery may well have it- not be around anymore. So what happens with JEV, it's a risk the longer you're in a place. And once Japanese encephalitis is established somewhere, it does become more of a risk to humans. And for travellers, for instance, it's advised that if you're going to JE endemic area for a month or more, you should get vaccinated. It may well be- as we understand, the extent of risk of this virus and as we understand whether or not it will become established and where it becomes established, it may well be that residents close to where we think the risk is - and that probably will settle around areas like the Murray River, where we know similar viruses like Murray Valley encephalitis can occur from time to time. It may well be that those communities will be recommended to have vaccination.

GREG JENNETT:    All right, sounds like something to keep an eye on, and we may well stay in touch on that. Sonya Bennett, for your expert advice, thanks for joining us today.

SONYA BENNETT: Thanks, Greg.


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