Australia’s Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Sonya Bennett, has declared the unfolding situation in Australia concerning the Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV) a Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance.
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.
Dr Bennett’s declaration followed her giving the National Security Committee of Cabinet a briefing earlier this week on the unfolding situation regarding JEV.
“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,” Dr Bennett said.
“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.”
On Thursday evening, Queensland officials confirmed a human case of JEV in that state. The case had recently travelled in regional parts of the state’s south and is being treated in a Brisbane hospital.
The Department of Health is aware of other cases, in multiple states, of encephalitis of unknown origin that are being investigated for arboviral diseases, including JEV.
The Australian Government will work closely with states and territories to educate the community about JEV, what precautions people should take, and symptoms to be aware of.
The Government will also work closely with the states and territories to support the distribution of vaccine doses to at-risk population groups.
JEV is a mosquito-borne viral disease that mostly occurs in pigs and horses, but can cause disease in people and rarely other animals. Pigs are the focus from a human health perspective as they can infect mosquitoes that can then infect humans. This is not the case with horses.
Humans can become infected with JEV through the bite of an infected mosquito. The virus cannot be transmitted between humans, and it cannot be caught through eating pork or pig products.
Less than 1 per cent of people infected may develop a serious illness such as encephalitis and experience symptoms including neck stiffness, severe headache and coma, and more rarely, permanent neurological complications or death.
The vast majority of infected people will show mild or no symptoms at all.
Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Mark Schipp, said JEV had been confirmed at 14 piggeries across NSW, SA, Queensland and Victoria.
“The key signs to look out for in pigs are stillborn or weak piglets, some with an impaired nervous system. Piglets can develop encephalitis or wasting, depression or hindlimb paralysis. Adult sows do not typically show signs of disease,” Dr Schipp said.
“In horses, many cases show no signs of the disease. Some animals may show signs of elevated temperature, jaundice, lethargy or anorexia. Other signs may include lack of coordination, difficulty swallowing, impaired vision or over-excitement."
“Pig producers are asked to be highly vigilant for signs of this disease and report unexplained pig abortions or stillbirths."
“People working with pigs, even if they’re only a backyard pet or a small herd, should take steps to control mosquitoes, as well as continuing to practice good biosecurity."
“Horse owners can also put measures in place to help their horses avoid mosquito bites, including using hooded rugs, fly masks, and applying a safe insect repellent."
“If you suspect an animal is showing signs of the disease, you must report it via your local veterinarian or the national Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.”