What is the Nipah virus? A growing challenge for India.
Indian authorities are currently facing a rare outbreak of the Nipah virus, a pathogen that jumps from animals to humans and causes a deadly fever with a high mortality rate.
The initial recorded outbreak of Nipah dates back to 1998, when the virus spread among pig farmers in Malaysia. It owes its name to the town where it was first identified. While Nipah outbreaks are rare, the World Health Organization (WHO) has categorized it, along with diseases such as Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19, as a priority for research due to its potential to trigger a global epidemic.
Nipah typically infects humans through contact with animals, contaminated food, or even direct transmission between people. Fruit bats are the natural carriers of the virus and are considered the main source of subsequent outbreaks. Symptoms include high fever, vomiting, and respiratory infections. Severe cases can cause seizures and swelling of the brain, ultimately leading to coma. Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine available for Nipah and the mortality rate varies between 40 and 75 percent depending on the public health response, according to the WHO.
Previous Nipah outbreaks.
The first Nipah outbreak claimed more than 100 lives in Malaysia and required the culling of a million pigs in an attempt to contain the virus. It also spread to Singapore, with 11 cases and one death among slaughterhouse workers who had contact with pigs imported from Malaysia. Since then, Nipah has been predominantly reported in Bangladesh and India, countries that saw their first outbreaks in 2001.
Bangladesh has experienced a significant burden, with more than 100 Nipah-related deaths since 2001. India faced two early outbreaks that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people before they were successfully controlled. Recently, the southern state of Kerala in India recorded two Nipah-related deaths and four confirmed cases in the last month. In response, authorities closed schools and initiated widespread testing. Notably, this marks the fourth documented series of Nipah cases in Kerala in five years, with the virus claiming 17 lives during the initial outbreak in 2018. Kerala's previous success in quelling these outbreaks was due to extensive testing and strict measures . . . isolation for those who were in contact with infected people.
The occurrence of zoonotic diseases, those that can be transmitted from animals to humans, has increased in recent decades. The rapid growth of international travel has facilitated the spread of these diseases. Additionally, human activities, including deforestation and industrial agriculture, have altered ecosystems and increased the risk of viruses mutating and becoming transmissible to humans. As different species come into closer contact, the transmission of viruses is facilitated, leading to the possible emergence of new diseases with human transmissibility.
Climate change further aggravates the situation, forcing many animals to migrate from their natural habitats to more hospitable areas. A 2022 study published in the scientific journal Nature warned about this phenomenon. Estimates from a 2018 study in the journal Science suggest that there are approximately 1.7 million unknown viruses in mammals and birds, of which between 540,000 and 850,000 possess the ability to infect humans.
Conclusion and recommendation.
Over the past two decades, NiV outbreaks have been reported in several countries, from Malaysia, Singapore, and Bangladesh, with the most recent reports in Kerala, India. These outbreaks have posed a significant threat to the economy and health of communities in the affected countries due to the high mortality rate and mobility of NiV infection. Furthermore, expert scientists have speculated that NiV could be classified as the next pandemic agent after COVID-19. Consequently, it is pertinent that sufficient preparedness and awareness be implemented among the public, especially those in the affected regions, to effectively control and contain NiV outbreaks. Furthermore, it is strongly recommended to ban the transport of pigs in the affected regions and improve hygiene practices on pig farms. Furthermore, collaborative efforts should be made to accelerate the development of specific treatment regimens to prevent any future occurrence of NiV.