Virus spreading across Australia is 'growing global threat', experts warn

A VIRUS that is spreading across Australia is a "growing global threat", an expert has warned.

Japanese encephalitis – a viral brain infection – has killed two people, with 15 others infected.

The virus is found in pigs and birds, and passed to mosquitoes when they bite infected animals.

It cannot be spread from person to person, so is not as big a threat as a Covid-type virus.

It's most common in rural areas in southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and the Far East.

The cases in Australia are thought to have emerged in piggeries, after four states reported infections last month.

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Two people, a man in his 70s and another in his 60s, have died from the virus since February 28.

Health scientist and CEO of the Encephalitis Society Dr Ava Easton has shared fears a significant number of people will either die or face "life-changing" effects from the virus.  

Dr Easton said: "For those who develop encephalitis as a result of a bite from a mosquito, nearly a third of those who contract encephalitis in that way will sadly die, and a third to 50 per cent will be left with serious to life changing consequences."

She told 7NEWS the recent floods in eastern Australia have created a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos.

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Dr Easton explained: "The flooding in Australia has resulted in more water, more migratory birds and that means more capacity for mosquitoes to feed on what we call these virus hosts such as pigs and water birds."

Most people infected with Japanese encephalitis virus, a form of flavivirus, will only get a mild or asymptomatic illness often mistaken for flu.

But some will develop encephalitis, which can be fatal or cause long-term neurological damage.

Symptoms of encephalitis include confusion, headaches, neck stiffness, tremors, drowsiness and seizures.

There's currently no cure for Japanese encephalitis. If a person has a severe infection, they usually need to be admitted to hospital so they can be given fluids, oxygen and medication.

AUSTRALIAN OUTBREAK

Four cases have been confirmed in South Australia, three in New South Wales, seven in Victoria and one infection in Queensland.   

This number is expected to rise in the coming days however.

Health department spokesman Chris Lease said it was important for people to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

Around 1 in every 250 people who become infected with Japanese encephalitis develop more severe symptoms as the infection spreads to the brain.

This usually happens 5 to 15 days after infection, and includes high temperature, a stiff neck, confusion or muscle weakness.

Up to 1 in every 3 people who develop these more serious symptoms will die as a result of the infection.

The disease is of particular concern for the elderly and the young, with kids under five more at risk of serious illness.

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In those who survive, these symptoms tend to slowly improve, but it can take months to recover.

This can lead to long-term problems, such as tremors and muscle twitches, personality changes, muscle weakness, learning difficulties and paralysis in 1 or more limbs.

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