In DepthPUBLIC HEALTH

Disease sleuths unmask deadly encephalitis culprit

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Science  28 Jul 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6349, pp. 344
DOI: 10.1126/science.357.6349.344

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Summary

Soon after the monsoon rains arrive in June, the northern city of Gorakhpur transforms into the "encephalitis capital of India." Hundreds of children from across the surrounding Uttar Pradesh state arrive at Baba Raghav Das Medical College with the brain inflammation that causes delirium, seizures, and—in about 20% of those patients—death. For decades, the recurring spates of cases and high mortality rate stumped experts. Now, medical detectives think they have solved the mystery: A major cause of the seasonal encephalitis outbreaks is scrub typhus, a bacterial malady transmitted by a microscopic mite. The culprit was first unmasked 3 years ago—but most researchers didn't believe it then. The new evidence, described this month in Emerging Infectious Diseases, indicates the responsible bacterium is far more dangerous than realized.

  • * Priyanka Pulla is a science journalist in Bengaluru, India.