There are now 57 confirmed cases of Japanese encephalitis (JE) in the country from January 2017 to August 5, and five of those cases have been fatal, according to the Department of Health (DOH) as reported by GMA News and ABS-CBN News.
[UPDATE: A few hours after we published this story, ABS-CBN News updated its news report at 9 p.m. It quoted DOH Undersecretary Gerard Bayugo as saying there are now 133 cases of JE recorded between January 1 to August 26 this year, 53 of which come from Central Luzon. Nine have also been confirmed to have died from it -- four come from Pampanga, two from Zambales, and three from Pangasinan, Laguna and Nueva Ecija.]
Pampanga has the most number of cases -- 32 were confirmed to have the life-threatening disease, according to the Regional Institute for Tropical Medicine. Suspected cases of JE in the region has been recorded at 259 since July 2017, according to the same report.
ABS-CBN News reported DOH has been monitoring the illness in five areas since 2014: Regions I, III, VII, XI and the Cordillera Administrative Region.
Last August 30, we shared the news of how the mosquito-borne illness took the lives of two boys, 6 and 9 years old, who resided in Laguna. Back in May, we spoke to dad Neil Licayan of Pampanga after his daughter suffered what he believed was JE. He urged parents to get their children vaccinated after his daughter died. (Read the rest of the story here.)
There is no cure for JE, but there is a vaccine. Since 2016, the vaccine has already been included in the childhood immunization schedule provided by the Philippine Pediatric Society (PPS). But based on comments on our social media, parents need to wait to get their kids vaccinated.
[UPDATE: Inquirer.net published news of the high demand resulting to a shortage of the JE vaccine a day after this article was published]
“Last week galing ako sa pedia ng anak ko, wala daw po stock ng JE vaccine... Kaya naka-schedule kami ng vaccine niya on September 9. Nagkaubusan na sila ng vaccine para sa JE,” commented Aarliee Patigas Villagomez on a post on the Smart ParentingFacebook page.
“As per my pediatrician, limited stock lang ang vaccine so nakapila kami sa list for mid-September delivery,” commented Dac Diego.
Take note there is one licensed brand in the Philippines for the vaccine. “That’s Imojev from Sanofi Pasteur,” said Dr. Sally Gatchalian, who has served as president of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of the Philippines.
The DOH has also been working to include the JE vaccine in the Expanded Immunization Program. The aim is to have the vaccine available by 2018 in all health centers, reported ABS-CBN News.
JE symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, confusion, and difficulty moving. Symptoms that develop later include swelling around the brain and coma. Those who survive the disease are likely to suffer permanent intellectual, behavioral and neurological problems.
Aside from scarcity of the vaccine, parents have also questioned why they’ve only heard of JE now. According to DOH Secretary Dr. Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubial, the disease is not new to the country. “Matagal na po tayong may mga kaso ng Japanese encephalitis. There's a clinical practice guideline sa all our hospitals know how to address cases.”
The disease is not isolated in the Philippines. JE was first documented in Japan but is present in 24 countries in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions. In countries like Japan and the Republic of Korea, and most recently Thailand and Vietnam, the incidence of JE has been declining mostly due to vaccination, according to the Hong Kong Department of Health.
While you wait for the JE vaccine to become available, there are other preventive measures parents can practice at home. These are similar to how Filipinos have been fighting against other mosquito-borne diseases like dengue:
1. Wear long-sleeved tops and pants, and apply insect repellent on exposed parts of the body. Read about choosing the most effective insect repellent here. (Note: researchers have found mosquito patches to be ineffective.)
2. Habitually search for and destroy possible mosquito breeding sites. The DOH advocates the daily “4 O’Clock Habit.” Late in the afternoon, walk around your home and look for places where there could be stagnant water pools.
3. As much as possible, “avoid going to rural areas from dusk until dawn when the mosquitoes spreading this virus are most active,” according to the Hong Kong DOH website.
“Yung lamok na 'to sa gabi nangangagat 'di katulad nung lamok sa dengue,” said DOH spokesperson Eric Tayag. JE mosquitos are common in areas near rice fields and chicken and pig farms.
Stay safe, everyone.
This story was updated on Sept. 5, 2017. 10:20 a.m.
Learn more about Japanese encephalitis and its vaccine here.