Today, Laos launched a nationwide Japanese encephalitis (JE) campaign aimed at reaching 1.5 million children between the ages of one and 15 years. This national campaign, conducted with support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is the result of PATH's longstanding efforts to protect millions of children from a devastating disease. After completing its national catch-up campaigns this year, the government of Laos is expected to fund and incorporate JE vaccination into its childhood routine immunization schedule, ensuring countrywide JE coverage for the first time in history.
Often referred to as "brain fever," three billion people in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific live at risk of JE. The disease often begins like the flu, progresses to a brain infection, and ends by killing up to 30 percent of those who fall sick, mostly children. The impact of JE can be devastating, and those lucky enough to survive are often left with long-term disabilities such as paralysis or the inability to speak. There is currently no cure for JE; vaccination is the only defense.
With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH and its partners have made tremendous progress in bringing global attention to a long-neglected disease. For more than a decade, PATH worked to identify and accelerate the delivery of an affordable JE vaccine. It began by identifying a safe, effective vaccine used in China for more than 20 years and collaborating with the manufacturer, Chengdu Institute of Biological Products (CDIBP); the World Health Organization (WHO), and ministries of health to conduct pivotal clinical trials to add to a growing collection of data on the vaccine. PATH also negotiated with CDIBP to secure an affordable public-sector price for the countries that needed it most.
In October 2013, a major milestone was reached–the WHO prequalification of CDIBP's JE vaccine, a first for China–signaling its entrance into the global vaccine marketplace and allowing Gavi to provide financing for low-income countries struggling with JE control. PATH played a pivotal role in helping CDIBP meet the rigorous international standards of quality, safety, and efficacy required for WHO prequalification from providing technical support to assisting in the design and financing of a new manufacturing facility.
In the spring of 2014, Laos moved forward to introduce JE immunization campaigns in two new provinces, with the goal of reaching 170,000 children in two weeks. These campaigns were conducted through an innovative partnership between Microsoft employees and PATH, allowing Laos to transport the vaccine from the Chinese manufacturer to the villages that needed them as well as provide health worker training to ensure successful vaccination campaigns. Now, by introducing a national JE vaccination program with additional funding provided by Gavi, Laos continues to demonstrate its commitment to eliminating JE.
The countrywide introduction of CDIBP's JE vaccine in Laos is an incredibly proud moment for PATH and its partners, who have worked since 2003 to support countries in their quest to protect vulnerable children from this deadly disease. Together, their efforts have meant that more than 221 million kids across Southeast Asia in countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and India have been reached by a vaccine once virtually unknown outside of China.
Cambodia is expected to conduct Gavi-funded, nationwide JE vaccination campaigns beginning in January 2016.