Health Ministry Investigates Student Death Possible Tied to Vaccine

By Thazin Hlaing 21 November 2017

YANGON — Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports is investigating the death of a 13-year-old female student who died after being vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis.

“We are still investigating. As we vaccinated so many people at the same time, it might have been a coincidence. We have continued immunizing and there have been no adverse events so far. We will announce when we find out the cause of her death,” said deputy director-general of Public Health Department Dr. Than Tun Aung.

The 13-year-old eighth grader from Shan State’s Pinlaung died after receiving a Japanese encephalitis vaccine at her school last week, raising concerns over its safety.

Following her death, the ministry released a statement on Nov. 18, saying that two other children also had serious conditions after immunization, but recovered after first aid treatment.

Funded by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the nationwide vaccination campaign against Japanese encephalitis was launched on Nov. 15, targeting 14 million children aged between nine months and 15 years old.

Until Nov. 17, more than 5 million children were immunized against Japanese encephalitis, and some 5,000 children reported having a fever and headache after vaccination, according to the Public Health Department.

A 7-year-old child in Irrawaddy’s Thabaung also died three days after getting vaccinated, but his death was due to other health problems, said Dr. Htar Htar Lin, deputy director of the vaccination project.

According to the Ministry of Health and Sports, 393 cases of Japanese encephalitis were recorded last year and the number of cases was 306 through the end of October this year. Thirty percent of the infected persons died, and most of those who survived suffer from permanent paralysis and brain damage.

The mortality rate for Japanese encephalitis varies—the average is 20 to 30 percent—but it is generally much higher in children, according to the WHO.

The Japanese encephalitis virus is maintained in a cycle involving mosquitoes and vertebrate hosts, mainly pigs and birds. Humans can be infected when bitten by an infected mosquito.

Initial symptoms of Japanese encephalitis often include fever, headache, and vomiting. Mental status changes, neurologic symptoms, weakness, and movement disorders might develop within two weeks after infection.

Twenty-four countries in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific regions have Japanese encephalitis transmission risk, according to the WHO.

Currently, the health ministry immunizes babies against several common diseases including polio, measles, and Japanese encephalitis.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.