Think once the coronavirus dies down we’ll be out the woods? If that’s what you believe, think again. A virus scarier than the coronavirus is lurking out there possibly aiming to start the next pandemic. Nipping at the heels of the coronavirus for being a deadly threat is the Nipah virus.
Haven’t heard of the Nipah virus? Well, there’s good reason. Since first being identified in 1999 in Malayasia, all outbreaks have occurred in South or Southeast Asia. But, hey, the coronavirus didn’t start in the U.S. either, and we see how that has affected us.
Nipah is a zoonotic illness transmitted from animals to people. (The “zoo” in “zoonotic” is there for a reason….) The first recognized outbreak in Malaysia occurred among pig farmers. Most of the human infections resulted from direct contact with sick pigs or their contaminated tissue. (There’s yet another reason to lay off the bacon consumption.) The virus was also detected in animals other than pigs in Malaysia; sheep, goats, cats, dogs, and horses also were infected by Nipah.
Blame the bats, fruit bats specifically, for subsequent outbreaks of Nipah in India and Bangladesh. Fruit bats in the family Pteropodidae, commonly known as “flying foxes,” are natural carriers of Nipah. Scientists have determined that the most likely source of infection for those outbreaks was from fruit or fruit products contaminated by these fruit bats. In particular, the bats adore the raw sap of the date palm tree and feast on it. When humans harvested the sap for processing into fruit juice or picked fruit nibbled on by the bats, the consumer of the fruit or fruit product was at risk of contracting Nipah.
Just this month, Nipah has reared its ugly and deadly head again in Asia. The third outbreak of the virus since 2018 in the south Indian state of Kerala, known for its palm-lined beaches on the Arabian Sea, is ongoing. Hmm! Think those palms lining the beaches there are DATE palms? Yup.
On September 5th, a 12 year old boy died from the Nipah virus after experiencing a high fever and swelling of the brain. As a result, the authorities identified all those who had come in contact with the boy and sealed off a TWO MILE radius from his home. Why such a broad sweep of quarantine? Because there is no treatment or vaccine currently available for people or animals. The primary treatment for a Nipah virus patient is merely supportive care.
While the Nipah virus is not related to the coronavirus, the two may have the same originating source. Finger the bats! Bats have been identified as a possible source of the coronavirus in China. An investigation into a 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala traced infections to dead fruit bats found in a water well. In these case, they would probably rather have had bats in their belfry than in their water supply
Nipah and the coronavirus are unlike in several ways. One difference is that Nipah is not as transmissible and is less contagious than the coronavirus. The current average transmission rate for Nipah is less than one person per infection. As opposed to COVID patients, those with Nipah start spreading the virus only after symptoms set in. Accordingly, quarantine efforts can be more effective in halting the spread of the virus.
Those differences sound good for Nipah, right? But wait, there’s a big and scary downside. While only around 2% of those who contract COVID die, up to 75% of Nipah infections prove fatal. For example, in a 2018 outbreak of Nipah, only 2 of 19 infected people survived. That’s a little over a 10% survival rate. Yikes!
In addition to having a higher mortality rate, Nipah also has a longer incubation period of up to 45 days and the ability to infect a much wider variety of animals. These factors make the virus the source of significant concern for epidemiologists. In fact, the WHO (the World Health Organization and not the rock band) classifies Nipah as a “virus of concern for future epidemics.” The organization has placed Nipah on a priority list of diseases for which research and development is needed. The diseases on this list are those which pose the greatest public risk because of epidemic potential and are identified as in “urgent need” for accelerated R&D.
Of particular concern to health officials is that genetic changes to Nipah are likely. Each time a human is infected with the virus, the virus is in an environment allowing for human adaptation. New strains which appear could more effectively be transmitted person to person resulting in a devastating outbreak. Dr. Stephen Luby, a professor of infectious diseases at Stanford, believes that a mutated strain of Nipa could lead to an outbreak which is “the worst humanity has ever faced.”
Although the virus has, so far, been contained to South Asia, the potential for worldwide transmission exists. A global problem could result due to spread through international trade, foreign travel, and climate change forcing fruit bats to seek new habitats.
What exactly happens to those unfortunate people who are infected by the Nipah virus? A fever and headache develop from three days to two weeks after infection. Thereafter a cough, sore throat, and respiratory issues appear. Finally, swelling begins in brain cells which causes drowsiness, confusion, coma, and often death. While some have survived a Nipa infection, they do not always recover unscathed. Twenty percent of survivors experience persistent neurological symptoms, seizures, and personality changes.
Efforts are underway to develop a Nipah vaccine, but as we have all learned from the current COVID pandemic, vaccine development takes time. Right now such development is a headache for researchers who feel pressured to come up with a lifesaving vaccine and prevent another worldwide virus outbreak. Given the existence of COVID and Nipah, we should all feel thankful if the worst thing we are experiencing at present is a headache. And, until a Nipah vaccine is developed, let’s avoid fruit bats and date palm trees.
Had you ever heard of the Nipah virus? As technologically advanced as society is today, does the appearance of such daunting viruses make you feel humans are not as in control as they might think? Is enough focus and funding being given to R&D efforts regarding deadly diseases?