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[NEW DELHI] As deadly outbreaks of Japanese encephalitis rage in northern India and Nepal, an online information centre has been set up to help health officials in Asia fight the disease.

Japanese encephalitis has killed more than 300 children this month in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and more than 100 people in Nepal. The disease is caused by a mosquito-borne virus.

Every year, the virus infects around 50,000 people in Asia. For most, symptoms are mild or non-existent. However, for one in every 200 people, infection leads to swelling of the brain that can kill or cause long-term disabilities, including paralysis, seizures and mental retardation.

To help counter the threat of the disease, the international non-profit organisation PATH (Program for Applied Technology in Health) has set up the Japanese Encephalitis Prevention Network.

Launched yesterday (30 August), the network will act as an Internet portal, allowing Asian health officials to share information about the disease, new outbreaks and efforts to control outbreaks.

The website will provide news of the latest research on how to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease.

Policymakers and public health officials in the affected region often lack access to such information.

Faced with the current outbreak, for instance, the Indian government's Central Research Institute is producing a vaccine derived from the brains of mice infected with the virus.  

But Indian health officials say the vaccine takes at least a month to begin working. As such, mass vaccination is not an appropriate response to outbreaks of Japanese encephalitis, which tend to last less than a month.

"The new network provides a platform to share information about the disease both within countries and across countries in Asia," said Julie Jacobson, director of PATH's Japanese Encephalitis Project.  "We hope that the information collected from the field will help countries to share their experience of how to control the disease in diverse settings in Asia."

Vaccines against Japanese encephalitis have existed since 1941, but they are expensive, produce undesirable side effects and are not widely available.

According to PATH, China has used an effective, locally produced vaccine to immunise more than 200 million children in the past 15 years, but it is the only Asian nation to have done so.

The World Health Organisation has not yet approved the Chinese vaccine, so Indian officials are unsure whether to wait for the approval or to go ahead and use it in light of the current outbreak.

Research into the disease received little international support until 2003, when the US-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave PATH US$27 million to accelerate vaccine research.