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Hope for a village: A family’s love to protect their children

October 2, 2019 by PATH

This family in Laos knew firsthand the importance of vaccinating their children against Japanese encephalitis.

After a deadly infection called Japanese encephalitis took their oldest son, Wa Meng and Siyang were first in line to protect their other children when a vaccine for the disease arrived in their village. PATH/Aaron Joel Santos

A story of loss, love, and new hope—in the form of a vaccine.

Wa Meng and his wife, Siyang, rushed down the dirt path with their three children. It was a long-anticipated day: The first immunization campaign with a vaccine to protect against Japanese encephalitis (JE) arrived in Khonkandone, their small rural village in Laos. The year was 2013.

From personal experience, Wa Meng and Siyang knew the devastating effects of the disease and how critical a vaccine would be to protect their family. Their oldest son, Kou Ha, was a healthy and strong 13-year-old who loved to play with his friends. One day, Kou Ha came home from school with a high fever, and his condition deteriorated quickly. He had contracted Japanese encephalitis, a deadly infection of the brain that’s transmitted by mosquitoes.

For years, the disease devastated rural areas across Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, where rice fields are a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Japanese encephalitis mostly infects children, killing 30% of those who fall ill with the disease and leaving up to half of all survivors with permanent neurological damage. There is no known cure and Kou Ha passed away.

On the first day of vaccination campaigns in Khonkandone village, flyers were handed out to educate community members about Japanese encephalitis, let them know a vaccine is now available to protect their families, and encourage them to bring their children to receive it. Siyang broke down into tears when she saw the photo of a child with the disease. “This is what our son looked like when he was sick,” Wa Meng explained.

Their story was all too common. Three billion people live in areas at risk of Japanese encephalitis and, at the time, very few had access to an affordable vaccine that could prevent infection.

Wa Meng holds up a photo of his son, Kou Ha, who died of Japanese encephalitis at the age of 13.

Wa Meng holds up a photo of his son, Kou Ha, who died of Japanese encephalitis at the age of 13. PATH/Aaron Joel Santos

A new solution

In the early 2000s, PATH began to understand the threat Japanese encephalitis posed to communities, and knew a solution was needed. A PATH team identified a little-known, effective JE vaccine being used throughout China and formed a groundbreaking partnership with its manufacturer, the Chengdu Institute of Biological Products. Together, a team of partners shepherded the vaccine from being relatively unknown outside of China through a rigorous global certification process. With approval from the World Health Organization (WHO), the vaccine, CD-JEV, became prequalified, opening the door for international financing support and making it affordable for the countries that needed it the most.

A game-changer

CD-JEV marked the first Chinese-produced vaccine to secure the WHO’s stamp of approval—a critical step that would reshape global JE vaccine supply and keep JE vaccine prices affordable for developing economies.

For Wa Meng and Siyang, it meant that they could protect the rest of their children from the disease because CD-JEV was now available in their community. They were the among the first families to greet health workers on motorbikes bringing the vaccines to Khonkandone in cold storage boxes. They encouraged friends and neighbors to take advantage of the immunization campaign and delighted in seeing children line up to receive the lifesaving vaccine.

Wa Meng Ha's son receives his JE vaccine at the campaign in Khonkahndone Village, Laos, while his brother looks on.

Wa Meng Ha's son receives his Japanese encephalitis vaccine at the campaign in Khonkahndone Village, Laos, while his brother looks on. PATH/Aaron Joel Santos

A sigh of relief

Perhaps most importantly, they breathed a sigh of relief: their three children were the very first in line. Wa Meng and Siyang sat together with smiles, knowing their children were now protected from the disease that took their older brother.

This immunization campaign protected hundreds of children in their small village, but it was just the beginning. Over the past 15 years, more than 300 million children in ten countries are safe from JE and its terrible consequences.

Learn more about PATH’s work to edge out JE by scaling an affordable vaccine for all countries that needed it.