Discover Encephalitis: what it is & how you can help


It’s World Encephalitis Day!

Wait – what is encephalitis?

78% of people across the world do not know what encephalitis is and this has to change! 500,000 children and adults are affected by encephalitis every year – that means one person every minute. The death rates for encephalitis are high and survivors are often left with an acquired brain injury, often resulting in memory problems, personality changes, epilepsy, fatigue, as well as emotional, behavioural, and cognitive difficulties.

The term encephalitis refers to inflammation of the brain, commonly caused by a viral infection. The exact cause of encephalitis remains unknown. There are two main types of encephalitis:

  • Primary encephalitis: occurring when a virus or other agent directly infects the brain.
  • Secondary encephalitis: resulting from a faulty immune system reaction elsewhere in the body, where one’s immune system starts to attack healthy cells in the brain. This often occurs 2-3 weeks after the initial infection.

Encephalitis often presents with mild flu-like symptoms, including headache and fever, but sometimes there are no signs at all. Other more severe symptoms can include disordered thinking, seizures, movement difficulties, paralysis, weakness, and more. A diagnosis can generally be made based on symptoms, as well as using blood tests, medical imaging and cerebrospinal fluid analyses.

What causes encephalitis?

Common viral causes include:

  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV), including both HSV-1 (associated with cold sores and fever blisters) and HSV-2 (associated with genital herpes).
  • Other herpes viruses, including the Epstein-Barr virus and the varicella-zoster virus.
  • Enteroviruses, including the poliovirus and the coxsackievirus.
  • Mosquito-borne viruses, causing infections such as St. Louis, West Nile, La Crosse, western equine and eastern equine encephalitis.
  • Tick-borne viruses
  • Rabies virus
  • Childhood infections, such as measles, mumps and German measles, although these are now rare due to the availability of vaccines.

Although anyone can develop encephalitis, a few risk factors have been identified:

  • Weakened immune system: people with HIV/AIDS, for example, who take immune-suppressing drugs are at an increased risk, as well as individuals with conditions causing a weakened immune system.
  • Age: in general, younger children and older adults are at an increased risk of encephalitis.
  • Geographical regions: certain regions of the world are more prone to encephalitis causes, such as mosquito- or tick-borne viruses.
  • Time of year: as mosquito- and tick-borne diseases are more common during certain seasons.

Encephalitis can be treated using antiviral medications (if caused by a virus), antibiotics (if caused by bacteria), steroids to reduce brain swelling, sedatives for restlessness, acetaminophen for fever, as well as physical and occupational therapy if the brain is affected post-infection.

 How can I protect myself and others?

There are a few precautions that can be taken to avoid the viruses that cause this disease. Firstly, vaccinations! Keep your own and your children’s vaccinations current, especially before traveling to a new destination. Consult with your doctor about your plans to travel and how you can protect yourselves. Practicing good hygiene is also important, involving frequent and thorough hand washing. One should also not share utensils with others, such as tableware and beverages. Protect yourself and your children against mosquitoes and ticks. This involves dressing for protection (wear long-sleeved shirt and long pants), apply mosquito repellent, use insecticides, and refrain from unnecessary activity in places where mosquitoes are common.

So, why should we be celebrating this disease?

World Encephalitis Day is not about celebrating the disease, it is about raising awareness and showing support towards individuals affected, as well as those who have been supporting or lost loved ones. World Encephalitis Day was founded by the Encephalitis Society in 2014 and is held on the 22nd of February each year. It was founded with the following statement: “It is our hope that it will play a leading role in our mission to increase global awareness of encephalitis and therefore saving lives and building better futures.”

To support their mission today, you can share social media posts about World Encephalitis Day to help raise awareness. Use the hashtags #WorldEncephalitisDay and #Red4WED on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and more!

Where can I learn more?

Explore the Encephalitis Society’s website to learn about how you can get help if you or someone you are close to is living with encephalitis, or learn how you can make a difference:  The Encephalitis Society offers a number of ways to get involved, including raising awareness, fundraising, donating, volunteering, and more!

You can also check out these two educational books on encephalitis:

  • ‘Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’ by Susannah Cahalan is an autobiography about her struggle with a rare form of encephalitis and her recovery. This book was also adapted into a homonymous 2016 movie starring Chloe Grace Moretz.
  • ‘Life After Encephalitis’ by Dr Ava Easton provides information on different types of encephalitis and describes the experiences of those affected by encephalitis, with powerful narratives of survivors and family members.

Featured Image Source: Kelley, et al. (2017). Autoimmune Encephalitis: Pathophysiology and Imaging Review of an Overlooked Diagnosis. American Journal of Neuroradiology.

Two Video Sources: Encephalitis Society on YouTube

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

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