Tamworth man Michael Cullen has urged people to pull up a sleeve for the free Japanese Encephalitis (JE) vaccine being rolled out across Tamworth, Gunnedah, Liverpool Plains, Inverell, Gwydir, Tenterfield and the Upper Hunter.
"No matter what, everybody should not take it [encephalitis] lightly," Mr Cullen, who contracted the infection from a mosquito bite in 2022, said.
"If you're going to be working outdoors, you should always have some sort of protection, whether it be a bug spray and or vaccines."
As of November 28, 2023, NSW Health has extended free access to JE vaccines across an additional 14 locations in various NSW Local Government Areas (LGAs), including Tamworth and Gunnedah, for those aged two months and older.
The vaccine is available via GPs, pharmacists or Aboriginal Medical Services for people who regularly spend time outdoors, are experiencing homelessness, live in tents, caravans or dwellings with no insect screens, or engage in prolonged outdoor flood recovery efforts.
Acting public health director from Hunter New England Health District (HELHD), Dr Peter Murray, said the decision to extend the free vaccine to 14 areas in the New England, North West Slopes and Upper Hunter, came after environmental and health experts considered previous mosquito data and available vaccine stock.
"Although we're anticipating a dry and hot summer, which means lower mosquito numbers, the experts determined that until ecological and climate factors behind JE transmission were better understood it was important to expand eligibility to an additional 14 LGAs," Dr Murray said.
A total of 45 people have been infected with Japanese Encephalitis Virus (JEV) since 2021, with seven people dying from the virus during that time.
Michael Cullen caught encephalitis from an infected mosquito
Almost one year has passed since Mr Cullen was bitten by a mosquito and caught encephalitis while he was mowing lawns in Tamworth on December 5, 2022, and he still suffers from migraines, memory loss, light sensitivity and mood swings.
"I'm still active and I'm doing stuff, but that's because it can attack your immune system and muscle, if I stop doing things, my whole body could seize up," Mr Cullen, a father of two, said.
"If someone pulls me up and says oh, 'what's encephalitis?' I'll give him a rundown real quick. I mean, I've been through it. And I wouldn't wish it on me worst enemy."
It was a sunny December 5, and Mr Cullen was mowing lawns in the Hillvue area while covered up wearing tracksuit pants, and work boots with a common t-shirt.
Just after midday, he drove to pick up his wife who noticed he had a locked jaw.
"She thought I was having a stroke," Mr Cullen said.
Mr Cullen spent about eight days in Tamworth hospital, but it wasn't until doctors did a lumber puncture to draw fluid from the base of his spine that they determined the cause was encephalitis.
"I was having hallucinations, seizures and I experienced a lot of confusion," Mr Cullen said.
"It was like I had dementia because I didn't know what I was doing or where I was half the time and I couldn't hold a conversation.
"It stressed me because I'm normally athletic and fit and on the move all the time."
It is not yet known whether the strain Mr Cullen had was JEV.