As an encephalitis outbreak rages in northern India and neighboring Nepal, a vaccine in China could have been used to keep more than 360 children from dying and hundreds more from likely suffering a lifetime of mental and physical disabilities.
But borders and politics complicate the issue, making access impossible without money and a strong political will, researchers say.
The children are dying from Japanese encephalitis, found only in Asia. Though closely related to West Nile virus, this illness isn't as widely known as other mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria or dengue fever. But it is the leading cause of viral encephalitis and neurological infection in Asia, typically attacking the poor and the young children age 1 to 15 who live near rice paddies in rural areas, according to the AP.
The outbreak in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, began last month and has left more than 1,000 hospitalized, while more children die each day. In Nepal, the disease has been spreading since April in the country's south, across the border from Uttar Pradesh.
Blinding headaches, seizures, nausea and high fever usually precede death, with the situation becoming so dire in India that doctors are using makeshift oxygen masks fashioned from cardboard cones and tubing on child victims after hospitals ran out of the real thing.
While drastically underreported, about 50,000 cases of Japanese encephalitis are recorded each year, including 15,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Of the survivors, up to 75 percent suffer disabilities, including paralysis and mental retardation. The disease has no cure or effective treatment.
The Chinese vaccine, made from a weakened form of the virus, has been used widely within the communist country since 1988. Last year, about 200 deaths were reported nationwide, according to the Chinese Ministry of Health.