JEV survivor warns virus is here to stay

Road to recovery: Mick Humphreys contracted Japanese Encephalitis mid-March despite being extra cautious. Now, he’s advocating for the vaccine to be readily available to high-risk communities.

Mick Humphreys considers himself one of the lucky ones after surviving Japanese Encephalitis.

Now he is advocating for the vaccine to be readily available to people living in high-risk communities.

The 70-year-old Up River Road resident was infected mid-March, but was not diagnosed until four weeks later.

“I just thought I was having a bad week of headaches,” Mr Humphreys told The Free Press.

“The headaches were the worst headaches you could ever experience. It felt like I was laying on a brick instead of a pillow. In fact, I couldn’t lay in bed, I would sit up all night.

“I was blaming the new pillows we had purchased. I just felt this enormous pressure in my head and stiffness in my neck.

“You don’t realise what’s going on. I had massive nightmares and a fever at times. I was very lost and thought I was going mad.

“The kids would ring me and said I was talking rubbish. I don’t even remember though. There’s a lot I don’t remember.”

Mr Humphreys and his wife Jen had an appointment with a financial advisor who also noticed something wasn’t quite right.

“I was asked on the quiet if Mick was feeling okay. The finance officer said he wasn’t concentrating and seemed confused,” Mrs Humphreys recalled.

“On the way home, we went and got a covid test thinking it was covid, which came back clear the following Saturday.”

By Saturday night, Mr Humphreys’ headaches were so severe, his wife decided to take him to the Emergency Department at Corowa Hospital.

“I asked the doctor out of the blue if it was Japanese Encephalitis,” Mr Humphreys said.

“The doctor said it could be a number of things.”

Mr Humphreys spent five weeks in hospital in Albury Wodonga. While in hospital he contracted Covid-19.

“I was a very high risk at that stage,” he said.

“I can’t say which one was worse, but they are both very dangerous. Thankfully I had been triple-vaccinated against covid.”

Mr Humphreys was diagnosed with JE approximately four weeks after being infected.

The diagnosis came as a shock to his wife.

“I said it had to be wrong because he was so careful,” Mrs Humphreys said.

“He was telling our family who visited at Easter time to be inside by 4pm because there were swarms of them hanging around the doors. He was so vigilant,” she said.

“I never thought I would get it. I was using mosquito repellent every day. I don’t know if it was good enough, but I was doing everything you could possibly do. I wouldn’t go outside. I was so careful, particularly after that Corowa man contracted it,” Mr Humphreys added.

X-rays of Mr Humphreys skull showed dark shadows where parts of his brain had died.

“I spoke to an infections doctor two weeks ago, and he told me the antibiotics and steroids did very little, it was my immune system that saved me,” he said.

While there is a long road to recovery ahead for Mr Humphreys, he considers himself very fortunate.

“Short term memory loss is probably the worse part of it now. I attend rehab three times a fortnight. That’s going well, I’ve progressed from a walking frame to a walking stick,” he said.

“It could have been much worse, as we have seen in this community already.”

Mr Humphreys said now is the time to get the message out into the community.

“The infection doctors told me that now that it’s here, it’s here to stay,” he said.

“Everyone will eventually get bitten by this mosquito. They’ve laid their eggs and by Spring the mosquitoes carrying the disease will be hatching again.

“Some of us will get very sick, possibly die, and others will show mild, if any symptoms. The scary thing is, if you’re immune system isn’t high, it’s a death sentence.

“We will all be at a high-risk next Summer. It’s quite frightening really.”

Mr Humphreys said he would like to see the vaccine readily available for anyone in the community who wants it. Before the current spread, the vaccine was available at GP clinics specialising in travel medicine, costing between $300-500.

“Our community is high-risk, and it will only get worse next summer,” Mr Humphreys said.

“A lot of people travel here and camp along the river. Imagine what it could do to our tourism?

“It’s a shame the vaccine was only offered to the piggery workers. It should have been offered to everyone. The mosquito can travel up to four kilometres. I live 15km from the Corowa piggery and I was bitten. I was the sixth person admitted to hospital in Albury Wodonga with Japanese Encephalitis. Imagine if 20 or 30 people were infected next year?

“There’s a lot of people who live between here where I am and the piggery. Then you’ve got the Howlong piggery and Albury.”

Mr Humphreys has also contacted all three levels of government, to stress how seriously the disease needs to be taken.

“After what I have gone through, I would hate for anyone else to go through it. It frightens me to think what would happen if a baby was bitten. There’s no cure, but there is a vaccine,” he said.

“I have been in touch with Bill Tilley who has sent a letter of to the Victorian Health Officer. I’ve also contacted Helen Haines who has written a letter to the Minister for health and aged care. I’ve also spoken to Indigo Shire Council, so they are onto it also.

“They’ve done the testing in Corowa which is great but there hasn’t been anything from Victoria. All levels of government need to work together because it’s not isolated to one side of the border.”

The latest data shows there have been 40 human cases of JEV in Australia with 13 identified in NSW and 10 in Victoria.

Sadly, five people have been reported to have died as a result of JEV including Corowa’s David Kiefel.

Australia’s Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Sonya Bennett declared the JEV situation a Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance.

While less than one per cent of people infected with Japanese encephalitis (JE) virus develop a clinical illness, of the patients who develop encephalitis, 20-30 per cent will die and 30–50 per cent develop long‐term side effects such as movement and speech disorders.

CSIRO's Japanese encephalitis expert Dr David Williams said it is still not known how the virus, spread to southeast Australia.

“The most likely mechanism was by infected waterbirds that migrated from northern Australia to the wetlands and waterways of south eastern Australia,” he said.

“From there, local mosquito populations are likely to have become infected by feeding on infected waterbirds, before spreading the virus to pigs and people.”

Dr Williams said it was hard to predict whether there will be further spread of JE virus this year

“This is something that state medical entomology teams and relevant public health units are considering and planning for,” he said.

“In the short-term, this will largely depend on weather conditions and how these influence the interplay between mosquitoes, and pigs and waterbirds.

“The La Niña weather event has produced above average rainfall that has created widespread larval habitats for the key JE virus mosquito species Culex annulirostris. The recent flooding may prolong the existence of freshwater habitats for this species in some locations, especially once floodwaters recede.

“It is possible that JE virus may follow the pattern of other important mosquito-borne viruses like Murray Valley encephalitis, which tends to contract into the northern parts of Australia in seasons following outbreaks or activity in Southeast Australia. This will be largely influenced by the prevailing weather systems that we experience.

“Importantly, sensitive surveillance programs will need to be established for monitoring JE virus and control strategies prepared to limit transmission.”