A new pandemic? Here’s what happened the last time Nipah virus spread

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Over the past 22 years, sporadic outbreaks of the Nipah virus, an emerging infectious disease, has prompted concern among international virologists and health officials.

First recognized in 1999 during an outbreak among pig farmers in Malaysia, the virus was, over the next few years, reported across Asian nations.


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The virus has been thrust back into the spotlight, following a report by the Access to Medicine Foundation.

As the war against the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, health experts are wary of that Nipah virus (NiV) has the potential to become a new pandemic.

The report stresses that the Nipah virus deserves attention from world health experts as an outbreak of the virus in China, with a fatality rate of up to 75 percent, could potentially be the next big pandemic risk with giant pharmaceutical companies unprepared while focusing on COVID-19.

“Nipah virus is another emerging infectious disease that causes great concern. Nipah could blow any moment. The next pandemic could be a drug-resistant infection,” The Guardian quoted Jayasree K Iyer, the executive director of the Netherlands-based Access to Medicine Foundation, as saying.

But what is the virus?

Transmitted from animals to humans, the virus is found in contaminated food. People, once infected with Nipah can pass on to others.

In infected people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it causes a range of illnesses from asymptomatic (subclinical) infection to acute respiratory illness and or fatal causes of encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. The usual treatment is supportive care.

The nnipah virus (iFile photo)
The nnipah virus (iFile photo)

During the first recognized outbreak in Malaysia, which also affected Singapore, most human infections resulted from direct contact with sick pigs, or their contaminated tissues.

In later outbreaks in Bangladesh and India, 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.

Risk of infection in other regions is possible, as evidence of the virus has been found in the known natural reservoir (Pteropus bat species) and several other bat species in a some countries, including Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, and Thailand.

During the later outbreaks in Bangladesh and India, Nipah virus spread directly from human-to-human through close contact with people’s secretions and excretions. In Siliguri, India in 2001, transmission of the virus was also reported within a health-care setting, where 75 percent of cases occurred among hospital staff or visitors. From 2001 to 2008, around half of reported cases in Bangladesh were due to human-to-human transmission through providing care to infected patients.

An outbreak of the Nipah virus in India’s southern state Kerala in 2018 claimed 17 lives. At the time, countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates temporarily banned frozen and processed fruit and vegetable imports from Kerala as a result of the outbreak there.

There is no vaccine for the Nipah virus (Shutterstock)
There is no vaccine for the Nipah virus (Shutterstock)

At the time, health officials believed that Nipah outbreaks in Bangladesh and India were perhaps associated with the drinking of date palm juice.

The 2018 annual review of the WHO R&D Blueprint list of priority diseases showed that there is an urgent need for accelerated research and development for the Nipah virus, for which there is no treatment or vaccine available - for either people or animals.

People infected with the Nipah virus initially experience symptoms including fever, headache, muscle aches, vomiting, and sore throat. Dizziness, drowsiness, altered consciousness, and neurological signs that indicate acute encephalitis, can follow.

Some people can also experience atypical pneumonia and severe breathing problems, including acute respiratory distress. In severe cases, seizures can lead to coma within 24-48 hours.

The incubation period, which is the interval from infection to the onset of symptoms, ranges from 4 to 14 days. At the longest, there are examples of cases of Nipah virus infection with an incubation period of 45 days.

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.”

Read more:

Nipah virus in China with up to 75 pct fatality rate could be next pandemic: Report

Nipah virus: What is this brain-damaging outbreak sweeping India?

Saudi Arabia bans fruit, vegetable imports from Indian state after Nipah outbreak

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