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Seattle and New Delhi, July 25, 2006—With monsoon season in India well underway, the government of India is rapidly working to protect its children from Japanese encephalitis (JE), the leading cause of viral disability in Asia. An unprecedented immunization campaign has so far vaccinated approximately 9 million Indian children; last year’s JE outbreak claimed more than 1,800 lives in some of the country’s poorest communities. Campaigns through the end of August will immunize 11 million children as the first part of a five-year, phased approach to halt the disease. The vaccination campaigns were designed to protect children before the peak of JE transmission season. Children in the highest-risk areas of India in more than 11 endemic districts will be protected from JE infection as a result of this enormous undertaking.
“We are happy that millions of children will be protected today and in the coming years against this dreadful disease,” said Mr. A.K. Das, Commissioner of Family Welfare and Special Secretary for Health in West Bengal, India, where a JE vaccination campaign is nearing completion. “This successful campaign is the result of an excellent partnership between the district administration, the state and national governments, and international agencies like PATH, WHO, and UNICEF.”
The decision to introduce the vaccine in India is helping to inspire other countries to control the disease. For too long, JE has been a so-called “orphan disease,” one that has been neglected and historically underreported despite its severe impact on children. Transmitted by infected mosquitoes, Japanese encephalitis kills more than 10,000 children in Asia and the Pacific every year, and it leaves one-third of its survivors with permanent neurological damage. Traditional measures to control mosquito populations have previously been unsuccessful in combating the spread of the disease. The mosquitoes that transmit JE breed in rice paddies and standing water, which are commonly found throughout Asia. Birds and pigs are hosts to the virus; if a mosquito bites an infected animal and then bites a human, the person can become infected with the JE virus. After a person is bitten by an infected mosquito, the JE virus invades the central nervous system, damaging the brain and spinal cord. Immunization is the most effective approach to prevent the disease. Today neighboring Asian countries like Nepal are also taking steps to immunize their children against JE.
“The Indian government has achieved a remarkable milestone with its commitment to eliminate JE and its dedication to protect children living in rural poor areas from this devastating disease,” said Dr. Julie Jacobson, director of PATH’s Japanese encephalitis project. PATH has worked closely with the Government of India and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to plan for JE vaccine introduction. “India’s remarkable large-scale effort will help turn the tide of death and disability caused by JE in the region.”
Immunization in India was inspired by a pilot program that the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh started with PATH with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This partnership helped introduce JE vaccine to high-risk districts in the state, beginning in 2001. Since then, PATH’s JE project has expanded this work, providing technical assistance to help the national government develop its strategy for preventing Japanese encephalitis.
PATH spearheaded negotiations with the JE vaccine’s main manufacturer, the Chengdu Institute of Biological Products, based in China, to establish an affordable price for the JE vaccine so that it can be more accessible in low-income countries. PATH and the Chengdu Institute have signed a commitment to provide vaccine at the public-sector price in low-income endemic countries in Asia for the next 20 years. The public-sector price that was negotiated is allowing India to begin vaccination on a large scale, including four states this year. PATH, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is assisting the institute to increase production of the Chinese-manufactured vaccine to expand access. The JE vaccine from China is recognized as being safe and efficacious in studies from several countries and has been reviewed by the World Health Organization’s Global Committee on Vaccine Safety. The vaccine has already been used to immunize more than 200 million Chinese children.
PATH is an international, nonprofit organization that creates sustainable, culturally relevant solutions that enable communities worldwide to break longstanding cycles of poor health. By collaborating with diverse public- and private-sector partners, PATH helps provide appropriate health technologies and vital strategies that change the way people think and act.