Why is Japanese encephalitis so deadly for children?

Japanese encephalitis virus is the most important cause of viral encephalitis in China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries of Southeast Asia and in the past 20 years it has extended its range westward into India, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka and eastward into the Pacific islands of Saipan and the Northern Marianas, as well as the northern tip of Queensland, Australia.

The spread of Japanese Encephalitis is a rising concern in many Asian countries. The fatal disease mostly affects children and elderly whose immune system are not strong enough to fight this viral infection which can even cause death.

What is Japanese Encephalitis?

Japanese Encephalitis is an illness in which there is swelling in the brain that leading to a sudden high fever, headache, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, seizures, spastic paralysis and, finally, death. If the symptoms are not treated within hours of the first few appearing, 30% of those affected die.

Even those patients in the good recovery group commonly encounter psychiatric problems, which include mental retardation, learning disabilities, speech and movement disorders and behavioral abnormalities.

Research regarding Japanese Encephalitis

Recent research in National Brain Research Center, Manesar, India by Dr. Anirban Basu and his graduate student, Sulagna Das have shown that JE virus damages the brain in two ways, by not only killing brain cells but by preventing the birth of new cells from neural stem/progenitor cells (NPC) and depleting the NPC pool in the brain. “It’s a double hit to the brain, the JE virus causes brain injury by killing neurons as well as prevents its repair” lead researcher and the senior author of the work Anirban Basu said in a statement.

Encephalitis symptoms can be caused by both Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), with cases for both peaking in the monsoon. Children under the age of 15 are the worst hit, with AES usually affecting children under 5 who are severely malnourished.

The children are more vulnerable targets of this virus, which causes a massive neuronal loss in the Central Nervous System. “Children are at a dynamic stage of brain development, hence infection at this stage can have devastating effects on mental functions later in life.

Our study has tried to explore how JEV infection leads to the development of long-term cognitive deficits in the survivors”, says Dr. Anirban Basu who has been working in the neurobiology of JEV infection for the past 4 years. These findings have been published online in a paper in Journal of Neurochemistry for inclusion in a future issue of the journal.

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