Kerala, a state in South India, has been hit by a spate of Nipah virus infections since May 19, 2018.
Since then, 17 people have died from the disease, according to a report published Asian Scientist Magazine.
This is India’s third encounter with the virus, with the last outbreak reported in 2007.
The Nipah virus has been known to spread to humans from infected animals.
Direct contact with infected pigs was responsible for the first known outbreak that occurred in Malaysia in 1998.
Subsequent outbreaks in Bangladesh and east India have primarily been traced to the consumption of fruits or related products that had been contaminated with the bodily fluids of fruit bats belonging to the genus Pteropus, which are native carriers of the virus.
Human-to-human transmission has also been proven possible, as reports have surfaced of infection clusters involving the families and caregivers of patients.
Persons infected with Nipah virus may not manifest any clinical symptoms.
Those that do may begin showing flu-like symptoms such as fever and vomiting. These symptoms can progress into more severe neurological effects such as confusion or disorientation, caused by inflammation of the brain.
Respiratory problems like pneumonia are also common over the course of disease progression. At present, there are no vaccines or cures available for Nipah virus infection.
Scientists in India are still trying to trace the origin of the current Nipah virus outbreak.
Laboratory testing of fruit-eating bats (Megaderma spasma) found in the compound of the initial victims tested negative for the virus.
This may be because the virus stays only for a limited time in its winged host, making its detection difficult, said researchers familiar with the nature of Nipah virus reservoirs.
A team from the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, India, has since joined the search for the root cause of the current outbreak.
The Indian government has also dispatched a multi-disciplinary team from the National Centre for Disease Control to investigate the matter.
Meanwhile, healthcare facilities are strengthening control and preventive measures, ramping up disease surveillance and carrying out contact tracing. At the time of writing, authorities say that the situation is effectively contained in Kerala.
Nonetheless, the high mortality rate of this disease (40–75 percent) remains worrisome, and many are fleeing their homes in the affected areas. Earlier this year, the WHO had added Nipah virus to a priority list warranting urgent research. Other names on this list include the Zika and Ebola viruses.
The WHO is closely monitoring the situation in India and are advising people at risk to avoid exposure to sick pigs or bats, as well as to avoid consuming fruits or drinking sap from raw date palm that may have come into contact with infected bats.
However, the WHO has not recommended any trade or travel restrictions to the affected regions.
Across the globe, efforts are underway to develop and manufacture a vaccine against the Nipah virus. For example, on 24 May 2018, a non-profit organization based in Norway—the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)—pledged US$25 million to two pharmaceutical partners (Profectus BioSciences, Inc. and Emergent BioSolutions Inc.) to support research on Nipah vaccines.
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