Nipah Virus Outbreak: Death Toll Rises In India As Brain-Damaging Disease Spreads

As the rare virus claims more lives in the Indian state of Kerala, concerns have been raised about the potential of Nipah to become a global health emergency.

As health workers in India scramble to contain an ongoing outbreak of Nipah, a rare and deadly virus with no known cure, concerns have been raised about the disease’s potential to become the next global health emergency.

At least 13 people in the Indian state of Kerala have died from the Nipah virus in the recent outbreak. On Monday, The Hindu newspaper reported that a patient with Nipah-like symptoms was under observation in a hospital in Goa, a state in western India. If diagnosed with the disease, the patient — reportedly a 20-year-old man who’d traveled to Goa from Kerala — could be the first case of Nipah infection outside Kerala since the recent outbreak began earlier this month.

The Nipah virus, which was first identified in 1999 after an outbreak in Malaysia and Singapore, is a disease thought to be transmitted by bats, pigs or other animals to humans. The virus, which has a mortality rate of up to 70 percent, can cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, as well as severe respiratory symptoms, according to the World Health Organization. There is currently no cure or vaccine for Nipah, though research into a possible vaccine is reportedly underway.

Doctors and relatives wearing protective gear carry the body of a victim of the brain-damaging Nipah virus, during his funeral in Kozhikode, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, on May 24.
Doctors and relatives wearing protective gear carry the body of a victim of the brain-damaging Nipah virus, during his funeral in Kozhikode, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, on May 24.

The current outbreak is believed to have originated with a family living in the coastal Kerala city of Kozhikode. India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said last week that public health workers had found several bats in a water well that had been used by three family members who died after contracting the Nipah virus. The Times of India reported, however, that samples taken from the bats tested negative for the virus.

Health officials said this week that they would ramp up testing of other animal samples from the region in an effort to pin down the origins of the current outbreak. Officials said they were particularly keen to test samples from fruit-eating bats, which are known carriers of the disease. The Times of India said the bats in the well were insect-eating bats, which are not known carriers.

Reuters reported Monday that a 26-year-old rickshaw driver from Kozhikode was the latest Nipah virus victim.

Last week, a nurse who treated Nipah victims perished from the disease.

“I think I am almost on my way. I may not be able to see you again. Sorry,” Lini Puthusheri wrote to her husband from her hospital bed, according to the Associated Press. “Take care of our children.”

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, people can be infected with the Nipah virus after direct contact with patients of the disease. “This is most commonly seen in the family and caregivers of Nipah virus-infected patients,” the CDC said.

The Nipah virus was listed this year on the WHO’s priority list of emerging diseases that could cause a global health emergency. Ebola and Zika were also on the 2018 list, which the WHO said identifies diseases that “pose a public health risk because of their epidemic potential and for which there are no, or insufficient, countermeasures.”

Stanford epidemiologist and Nipah expert Stephen Luby said recently that Nipah could conceivably become a “global pandemic threat” if there emerged a strain of the disease that could efficiently be transmitted from person to person.

“It is conceivable that there is currently a strain of Nipah virus circulating among bats that, if it infected people, would efficiently transmit from person to person,” Luby told the Stanford Report, though noting that “so far, we have not identified such a strain.”

“Characteristics that might increase the risk of person-to-person transmission would be a virus that has a stronger tendency to move to the respiratory tract in high numbers,” he said. “It is conceivable that the virus could acquire a mutation that would enhance this capacity. One concern is that anytime a virus infects a human, it is in an environment that selects for survival in that context.”

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