From flu to ICU: combatting deadly encephalitis

04 August 2014

Encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, can kill in hours. Five year-old Behnam Emery deteriorated from a sniffle and a headache at a birthday party on Saturday to intensive care by Monday morning.

Behnam was transferred to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead from his local hospital. Fiona and Behnam’s father, Matthew, said goodbye to him as he was being wheeled off to have an MRI, and the next time they saw him he was in a coma, paralysed and unable to breathe alone.

Tests later revealed he had contracted the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, which led to acute disseminated encephalomyelitis that had affected his spinal cord, causing no movement in his limbs. Doctors diagnosed an auto immune cause of his condition and immediately administered steroids and intravenous immunoglobulin.

Within a week Behnam was out of ICU. He gradually recovered over the next few months and today the only reminder of his ordeal is a weakness in his left foot.

The cause of encephalitis is still unknown in more than half of cases. It kills up to 5% of patients and can leave others with brain damage and other major complications.

Professors Cheryl Jones and Robert Booy from the Kids Research Institute are establishing encephalitis surveillance through intensive care units and paediatricians’ clinics across Australia to look for new causes. They plan to collect samples from all children who contract the illness then use sophisticated high throughput genetic sequencing to search them for every known virus and bacterium in humans.

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