VACCINE FOR DISEASE THAT DISABLES AND KILLS MILLIONS IN ASIA GETS MAJOR FUNDING BOOST
Children’s Vaccine Program Receives Grant From Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Combat Japanese Encephalitis
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON (9 December 2003) - Japanese encephalitis, a close cousin of West Nile virus, has been spreading across Asia for decades, steadily expanding its lethal reach. The Children’s Vaccine Program (CVP) at Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) announced today a new effort to make a Japanese encephalitis (JE) vaccine accessible to those who need it most throughout Asia and the Pacific. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committing US$27 million to this five-year effort. Based at PATH headquarters in Seattle, the CVP project aims to improve disease surveillance, accelerate development of an improved vaccine, and integrate JE vaccine into immunization programs in Asia.
The Japanese encephalitis virus is a member of the same viral family as the West Nile virus, which emerged in North America in 1999, and now causes illness and some deaths each year. Both diseases are spread by mosquitoes, can cause inflammation of the spinal cord and brain, and can be fatal. But where West Nile kills one in 100 people clinically infected, Japanese encephalitis kills one in three. Most of JE’s victims are children under 15 years of age. Almost half of all survivors are left with a long-term disability, including paralysis, seizures, and mental retardation. And while research on a West Nile vaccine has surged since the disease struck the United States in 1999, work on a better vaccine against JE—a disease still largely limited to the developing world—has languished for decades.
“One of the big challenges with Japanese encephalitis has been the difficulty in diagnosis," said Dr. Julie Jacobson, CVP’s director for the new project. “JE is frequently mistaken for other diseases as diagnostic tests are not readily available. Our program supports efforts to improve clinical surveillance of this disease, so that the magnitude of the problem can be understood. We also want to catalyze more efforts to control the disease. The next and most important step is to leverage work on increasing the availability of a safe, efficacious vaccine."
From its origins in Japan, the JE virus has spread to other parts of East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and now threatens three billion people. Recent large outbreaks of JE in India and Nepal have raised serious concerns that the disease is spreading more rapidly. Although severely underreported, about 30,000 to 50,000 cases are reported each year throughout Asia, with 15,000 deaths annually.
A mouse-brain vaccine against JE has been in use since 1941, but it requires three doses to work, and cannot be easily produced in the quantities needed. “Newer, more efficacious vaccines will soon become available," says Dr. Mark Kane, Director of CVP. “We are looking into which one will be the most promising to pursue for wide scale adoption."
Dr. Regina Rabinovich, director of the Gates Foundation’s Infectious Diseases program, emphasized the urgency: “Recent outbreaks of Japanese encephalitis in Asia demonstrate the urgent need to increase access to an effective vaccine. We hope that this initiative will help save the lives of the many children currently at risk for this disease," she said.
CVP will work in collaboration with partners in the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), including ministries of health, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Health Organization (WHO), to ensure that developing countries are ready to use the vaccine. They will strengthen disease surveillance networks and educate the medical community and policy makers about the vaccine’s public health benefits.
“Ultimately, the project depends upon all GAVI partners’ ability to successfully build stronger immunization programs that can finance and introduce new vaccines to protect the vulnerable," said Jacobson.
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), an international, nonprofit organization, 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. PATH’s work improves global health and well-being. For additional information, visit www.path.org.
Children’s Vaccine Program (CVP) at PATH, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, works to ensure that all children receive the full benefits of immunization without undue delay. It also supports the development and introduction of new and underused vaccines in developing countries. For more information, visit www.ChildrensVaccine.org.
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