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What is viral encephalitis? How up to 60% of cases of rare brain infection that causes flu-like symptoms and was suffered by late Pogues singer Shane MacGowan go undiagnosed

Shane MacGowan, the lead singer and songwriter of trailblazing Celtic punk band the Pogues, has died aged 65. 

The legendary Irish rocker, who was behind the iconic Christmas song Fairytale of New York, died at 3am today with his wife Victoria Mary Clarke and family by his side.

The singer was diagnosed with viral encephalitis last year — a life-threatening condition which leads to brain swelling — and had been in and out of intensive care for  months. His condition was exacerbated by shingles that spread to his eye.

In recent years, he had also been confined to a wheelchair and was aided by his wife and a carer at home, having been plagued by ill-health linked to his years of alcohol and substance abuse.

But what is viral encephalitis? How does it spread? And what treatments are available? 

Shane MacGowan (pictured in 2002), the lead singer and songwriter of trailblazing Celtic punk band the Pogues, has died aged 65. The legendary Irish rocker, who was behind the iconic Christmas song Fairytale of New York, died 'peacefully' at 3am today with his wife Victoria Mary Clarke and family by his side

Shane MacGowan (pictured in 2002), the lead singer and songwriter of trailblazing Celtic punk band the Pogues, has died aged 65. The legendary Irish rocker, who was behind the iconic Christmas song Fairytale of New York, died ‘peacefully’ at 3am today with his wife Victoria Mary Clarke and family by his side

The cause of encephalitis isn’t always known.

However, viral infections — such as measles, chickenpox and herpes — can trigger the condition by spreading to the brain. In rarer cases, bacterial infections can also be the cause.

A problem with the immune system that causes it to attack the brain and become inflamed can also cause encephalitis.

In the vast majority of cases, infections won’t cause encephalitis. The condition strikes just 4,000 Brits annually, according to the Brain & Spine Foundation.

The inflammation can affect one or many different areas of the brain and ranges from mild to severe.

Early signs of the condition include flu-like symptoms, such as a fever and headache.

More serious symptoms develop over hours, days or weeks, such as confusion, seizures, personality changes, difficulty speaking and loss of consciousness. 

However, up to 60 per cent of cases remain undiagnosed.

Studies suggest that while thousands of cases are reported globally each year, more may occur since the symptoms may be mild to non-existent in most individuals.

The NHS urges anyone experiencing encephalitis symptoms to dial 999 for an ambulance.

People who are suspected of having encephalitis should receive immediate medical treatment in hospital, where they may need to stay for months.

The disease can progress rapidly and has the potential to cause severe, irreversible neurological damage.

The singer was diagnosed with viral encephalitis last year — a life-threatening condition which leads to brain swelling — and had been in and out of intensive care for several months. His death has come just days after he returned home after being released from hospital, with his wife Victoria sharing a photo of him in his hospital bed

The singer was diagnosed with viral encephalitis last year — a life-threatening condition which leads to brain swelling — and had been in and out of intensive care for several months. His death has come just days after he returned home after being released from hospital, with his wife Victoria sharing a photo of him in his hospital bed 

His wife Victoria Mary Clarke posted regular updates about her husband's wellbeing on social media

His wife Victoria Mary Clarke posted regular updates about her husband’s wellbeing on social media 

Treatment depends on the underlying cause. But antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir and ganciclovir, steroid injections and antibiotics may be used.

Anti-seizure drugs and painkillers may also be offered to reduce discomfort, while corticosteroids can help reduce brain swelling. Those with the condition may also require support with breathing, such as oxygen through a face mask or a ventilator. 

While some are able to make a full recovery, many people will be affected by long-term problems caused by damage to their brain. 

These include amnesia, personality and behavioural changes and problems with attention, concentration, planning and problem solving.

Anyone can be affected by the disease but the very young and elderly are most at risk.

While it’s not always possible to prevent encephalitis, the NHS recommends having the MMR vaccine. It also advises getting travel-related jabs before going on holiday, such as the Japanese encephalitis vaccine before going to parts of Asia.

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