Detecting Japanese encephalitis in PNG

17 August 2022

The surveillance and detection of Japanese encephalitis is the focus of new ACIAR-funded research in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Led by CSIRO, the research project will expand a One Health surveillance approach for the mosquito-borne viral disease, which uses water birds as reservoirs and pigs as amplifying hosts.

Endemic across PNG, Japanese encephalitis (JE) is a potentially fatal disease that mainly affects rural communities, with the highest disease rates in children.

The new ACIAR investment will enable CSIRO researchers to build on 2018 research that developed laboratory and field capacity for One Health surveillance strategies addressing JE and other insect-borne diseases affecting animals and people in PNG.

The zoonotic disease has been making headlines in Australia, with 40 human cases reported along with JE infections detected at piggeries across New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

Project Leader Dr David Williams of CSIRO said the additional investment from ACIAR will continue to build capacity in PNG for expanded surveillance to allow the detection of JE and other zoonotic arboviruses.

‘Japanese encephalitis is the main cause of human viral encephalitis in South-East Asia. Although an effective vaccine is available, there are still roughly 100,000 human cases recorded globally each year,’ Dr Williams said.

‘Pigs are central to village life and culture in PNG, but they are also an amplifying host of the JE virus. With an estimated 2 to 3.5 million village pigs living within rural communities and near smallholder farmers, it’s important that we understand the characteristics of JE virus circulation, and that means better surveillance.’ 

The research project will look to further animal serological surveillance and mosquito surveillance and undertake pilot human surveillance activities to understand better how JE spreads to animals and people.

‘The research outputs are expected to provide critical information for decision-makers in PNG that can be used to inform future vector-borne disease control and surveillance programs,’ Dr Williams said.

The initiative will also build the capacity of local staff at the PNG Institute of Medical Research (PNG IMR) and the National Agriculture and Quarantine Inspection Authority (NAQIA) with laboratory and biosafety training at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.

ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock Systems, Dr Anna Okello said the further investment contributes to the Papua New Guinea–Australia Partnership for Development.

‘This second phase of the PNG zoonotic arbovirus surveillance research, led by CSIRO, contributes to Australian efforts to work in partnership with PNG on regional issues affecting smallholder farmers, including the sustainability and resilience of agrifood systems, livestock health, food security and health security,’ Dr Okello said.

‘It also directly contributes to a major focus for ACIAR in building the research and scientific capacity of our partner countries to extend and maximise the adoption of new knowledge and technologies.’

Dr Okello, who is also a Commissioner on The Lancet One Health Commission, said it’s critical that the new research is taking a One Health approach to further knowledge on the JE virus.

‘The project will continue to adopt a One Health approach to facilitate partnership and linkage between human and animal health organisations in PNG, namely PNG IMR and NAQIA,’ Dr Okello said.

‘This approach recognises the link between human disease, animals and the environment; it is acknowledged as optimal for leveraging capabilities in resource-poor countries and is appropriate for controlling zoonotic diseases influenced by human agricultural practices.’

The research is funded through the ACIAR Livestock Systems Program and will run until December 2023. The project will build on previous research funded through a joint ACIAR-DFAT initiative through the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security.

Learn more about the project via the ACIAR website.