When Dr. Suni Boraston, Medical Director of Vancouver Coastal Health’s Travel Clinic, sees patients who are heading to Asia, she will mention that there is a chance of getting Japanese encephalitis (JE). “It’s not on the radar for the majority of Canadian travellers,” she says — but it should be.

Japanese encephalitis is a rare but potentially fatal disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes and can cause long-term nerve and brain damage. Travellers should be aware that visiting countries like Thailand and Indonesia any time of year, or parts of South East Asia from June to October, can expose them to the disease.

“If you’re going to those two countries for a month or more, or visiting rural areas in other destinations in Asia, there is a risk of contracting Japanese encephalitis,” Dr. Boraston says. Though the chances of contracting the disease are very low — one recorded case in 400,000 in Bali — JE is not something to be dismissed as there is no cure for this viral illness.

Safeguard your health

Symptoms associated with JE include high fever, chills, neck pain, headaches, vomiting, confusion, and mobility issues. Swelling around the brain and comas may develop later on in the course of the disease. Some people may become infected and not have symptoms.

“Protection is important,” explains Dr. Boraston. “That includes taking steps to ensure you don’t get bitten by mosquitoes — think long sleeves and pants, and wearing good-quality repellants with DEET or picaridin.”

Be extra diligent in the evening when the type of mosquitoes (culex tritaeniorhynchus) carrying the virus are the most active. Sleep in accommodations that offer air conditioning, screens on windows, and netting around beds.

Another option for travellers to Asia is to get a vaccine formulated to prevent JE. Given via injection, the vaccine is administered in two doses over the course of a month. Before going to Asia, visit a travel clinic at least six weeks before travelling to find out how to protect yourself against JE and how to safeguard your health away from home.