Health experts have warned that the Nipah virus is a cause for concern, and governments need to learn lessons from the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure there is not a future pandemic.
Virologists and doctors across the region say, while there is several emerging infectious disease at any one time, the Nipah virus is particularly sinister, due to its high fatality rate and no treatment or cure available.
A recent report by the Access to Medicine Foundation warned that an outbreak of the Nipah virus in China could potentially be the next big pandemic risk.
Nipah is a virus with a fatality rate of up to 75 percent. It can be transmitted to people from animals and through contaminated food and produce, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The deadly virus can also be transmitted from person-to-person.
The virus, also known as NiV, can spread to humans through “direct contact with infected animals such as bats or pigs, or their body fluids,” including blood, urine or saliva, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr Jyoti Upadhyay, a specialist in internal medicine at Aster Hospital, Mankhool, UAE, told Al Arabiya English: “This is a very rare virus, but it is a cause for concern.
“It can cause severe brain damage and, as yet, the treatment is only supportive."
“Because of COVID-19 no one is looking at this (the threat)."
Dr Upadhyay said more studies should be undertaken to explore the severity of the Nipah virus.
"We have learnt lessons in COVID-19 – and we can use those lessons (with the Nipah virus)."
“If action is taken to contain it should not be a matter of worry – but this happened with COVID-19 as well. All people should be wary and make sure it doesn’t spread."
“It is up to governments to take further action.”
Fruit bats are the natural host of the Nipah virus.
It is a concern because there’s no treatment, and a high mortality rate is] caused by this virus, says Dr Upadhyay. Per cent, depending on where the outbreak occurs.
She isn’t alone in her worry.
Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reviews the large list of pathogens that could cause a public health emergency to decide how to prioritize their research and development funds. It focuses on those that pose the greatest risk to human health, those that have epidemic potential, and those for which there are no vaccines.
Nipah virus is in the WHO’s top 10.
Dr Amaka Kate Uzu, a consultant in family medicine at Bareen International Hospital - MBZ City, said here have been past outbreaks of the virus in countries like Malaysia, Bangladesh and India.
“Yes, the Nipah virus is a concern, because like COVID 19 virus, it can spread from region to region if not controlled at an early stage,” she said.
Dr Muhammed Anas Ayoob, a specialist in pulmonary disease at Abu Dhabi’s NMC Specialty Hospital, said the Nipah virus can be transmitted to humans from animals (such as bats or pigs), or contaminated foods and can also be transmitted directly from human-to-human.
Nipah virus was first recognized in 1998-1999 during an outbreak among pig farmers in Malaysia and Singapore. It was first recognized in India and Bangladesh in 2001; since then, nearly annual outbreaks have occurred in Bangladesh.
Consumption of fruits or fruit products (such as raw date palm juice) contaminated with urine or saliva from infected fruit bats was the most likely source of infection. Human-to-human transmission of Nipah virus has also been reported among family and care givers of infected patients
Dr Ayoob said: “Public health educational messages should focus on reducing the risk of bat-to-human transmission, and efforts to prevent transmission should first focus on decreasing bat access to date palm sap and other fresh food products."
Gloves and other protective clothing should be worn while handling sick animals or their tissues, and during slaughtering and culling procedures. As much as possible, people should avoid being in contact with infected pigs," said the doctor.
“Close unprotected physical contact with Nipah virus-infected people should be avoided. Regular hand washing should be carried out after caring for or visiting sick people.”
According to the WHO’s disease guidelines on the virus: “In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to reduce or prevent infection in people is by raising awareness of the risk factors and educating people about the measures they can take to reduce exposure to the Nipah virus.”
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