A rare and deadly virus called Nipah virus has emerged in the state of Kerala and has created havoc in the lives of people living in the affected areas of Kozhikode, Malappuram, Wayanad and Kannur. Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh are also on alert. Nipah virus has claimed 12 lives including Lini Puthussery (a nurse attending to the Nipah patients) and has put at least 40 others in quarantine so far, prompting global concerns as World Health Organization (WHO) has listed the infection as a ‘public health risk with epidemic potential’. Countries like UAE have also ensured that the flights till Kerala are put off for a few days due to the spread of deadly Nipah virus.
But what exactly is this virus? Nipah virus infection is a newly emerging zoonosis with a high fatality rate of around 75%. It was first identified worldwide in 1998 in Malaysia during an outbreak of a disease which affected pigs and through them got transmitted to humans. In India, its first occurrence was in Siliguri, West Bengal, in 2001 with 66 cases and 45 deaths. The natural hosts of the virus are fruit bats which are usually found in forests but due to urbanization might actually be found in cities as well. This can also get transferred through infected bats, pigs or other domesticated animals and even from one human to another. The virus is released through saliva, urine and excreta of bats and spreads through their consumption. Hence, the virus is also impacting the fruit exports from Kerala.
Nipah virus is a viral infection which affects the respiratory and central nervous systems with symptoms like fever, sore throat, headaches, vomiting, muscle pain etc. These can be followed by drowsiness, confusion and disorientation. People who are infected with this virus may even fall into the coma within 48 hours of showing symptoms. Even the people who have survived the infection may have lasting effects including personality changes, convulsions and might even get re-activated with this virus.
Right now, considering very little is known about the virus, there are no vaccines or medicines available for the treatment. In other words, it is incurable and can only be managed through intensive supportive care. Certain precautionary measures are being taken by others in the state like wearing NH95-grade or higher masks, avoiding the consumption of partially eaten fruits or unpasteurized juices etc. It is essential to avoid unprotected physical contact with infected people. Medicals camps have been set up in the major districts affected by the infection and doctors and professionals have been appointed.
Union Health Ministry has urged people not to panic as the situation is under control now. The deserted streets of these districts are coming back to life with situations returning to normalcy. Kerala government says that the outbreak has been curtailed through timely intervention with no fresh cases being reported from the affected areas.
Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is a global alliance of governments and non-profits, has promised that it would grant up to $25 million dollars for over the next five years to Emergent BioSolutions and Profectus BioScience for development of a vaccine against this deadly virus. Ribavirin tablets, the medicine which was used in Malaysia to control the infection, have also been rushed to India. But these medicines can have adverse side effects on the patients and hence, their use is very limited. It could take many years before the treatment for Nipah virus infection is ready for humans.