What is Encephalitis?
Encephalitis is an acute inflammation of the brain tissue that most commonly occurs as a result of viral, bacterial, or fungal infections. Encephalitis can also develop as a result of the immune system misidentifying and attacking tissues in the brain. Encephalitis typically occurs in children, older adults, and those with compromised immune systems. Individuals living with HIV are particularly at risk, as around 15% of all encephalitis cases occur within the HIV-infected population. Although encephalitis is rarely life-threatening, it is vital to quickly diagnose the condition and begin appropriate treatment as it can be difficult to predict how an individual may be affected.
What causes Encephalitis?
The exact cause that allows encephalitis to develop isn’t exactly known all the time. However, when a cause is identified it is most likely the result of a viral infection. There are three primary groups of viruses that can lead to encephalitis. These are common viruses, childhood viruses, and arboviruses. The most common virus that can cause to encephalitis is herpes simplex. Encephalitis from the herpes simplex virus can be one of the most dangerous forms of the infection and can lead to severe brain damage. Other common viruses that can lead to encephalitis include Epstein-Barr virus, HIV, and cytomegalovirus.
There are a handful of childhood viruses that can cause encephalitis, although these forms of encephalitis are fairly rare today. These can include the chickenpox virus, measles, polio and rubella. Vaccines can help prevent these viruses from developing to encephalitis, although injury from vaccines do rarely happen.
Finally, there are a handful of viruses that are carried specifically by insects. These are known as Arboviruses and are largely carried by mosquitoes or ticks. This can occur in particular in the West, Midwest or Southern regions of the United States. Additionally, it has been reported encephalitis can result from drinking raw (unpasteurized) milk from goats, sheep, or cows.
What are the symptoms of Encephalitis?
The symptoms of Encephalitis may be hard to recognize immediately, as those affected by encephalitis will largely just present with flu-like symptoms including headaches, fevers, aches in muscles and joints, as well as fatigue and weakness. More severe symptoms include:
- General confusion
- Loss of sensation or paralysis in face or body
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of consciousness
Infants and younger children may also present with a different set of symptoms that include bulging in the fontanelles (the soft spots of an infant’s skull), nausea, vomiting, body stiffness, irritability, and difficulty feeding.
Encephalitis, while not typically life-threatening, is very serious. Seek immediate care if you or a loved one is experiencing any of the more severe symptoms typically associated with encephalitis. In particular, severe headaches, fevers, and altered consciousness absolutely require urgent medical care. Children and infants that present any signs of encephalitis should also be seen immediately by a doctor.
How is Encephalitis diagnosed?
Once the classic symptoms of encephalitis have been diagnosed by a doctor, they may order a number of tests. First, a neurological examination may be performed. A doctor may also order a lumbar puncture to collect a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid with the intent of identifying higher-than-average protein levels or white blood cell count. Brain imaging studies, such as a MRI, may also be ordered by the doctor to identify brain changes that are suggestive of encephalitis.
How is Encephalitis treated?
Treatment for encephalitis is relatively straightforward as there are only a handful of reliable antiviral agents that can help. One of the most successful treatments is the antiviral agent Acyclovir, which may be successful for a number of infections, excluding those developed as a result of the herpes simplex. For individuals with relatively mild symptoms doctors will often simply recommend rest, adequate fluid intake, and a pain reliever such as acetaminophen to reduce fevers or headaches.
Although vaccines save millions of lives every year, there is always the rare chance that an individual may suffer a bad reaction. Children, in particular, are especially at risk as a result of multiple potential reasons, including multiple immunizations at one time, fevers that develop post-vaccination, as well as gene mutations and enzyme dysfunctions. As such, provided certain criteria are met, the federal government has the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) available for individuals that have been negatively affected as a result of a bad reaction to a vaccine. Encephalitis is included within the NVICP’s vaccine injury table for a number of vaccines, meaning that government compensation is available as a result of such an injury if you meet specific criteria and are able to prove your case.
It is important to identify a possible vaccine injury as quickly as possible. Typically with encephalitis, an individual will experience reactions within two weeks after the immunization date. This could include any of the symptoms mentioned above. Although symptoms may last only a few days, parents should closely monitor their children if encephalitis develops after vaccination and report any ongoing neurological symptoms or developmental delays that appeared post immunization.
If you or your child is injured by a covered vaccination, you may be entitled to compensation under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program provided you meet certain criteria. Compensation under the NVICP is designed to cover pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses relating to the vaccination injury, as well as provide compensation for any past or future loss in income as a result of the injury. In addition, legal fees and costs related to the vaccine injury claim are covered so you do not incur any expenses for filing a claim.