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Rare and deadly bat virus without a cure is killing people, experts warn of global pandemic

More than 13 people have died after being infected with the Nipah virus since an outbreak began earlier this month in India
UPDATED FEB 24, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

An outbreak of a rare disease has claimed the lives of 13 people in India and medical authorities have warned that the spread of the disease could cause a global pandemic.

Following the recent re-emergence of the Nipah virus, critical measures have been taken across the southern Indian state of Kerala. The deadly virus is known to cause flu-like symptoms that eventually lead to encephalitis, reported Sky News.

Nipah virus infection (NiV) is a viral infection caused by the Nipah virus which was first identified in 1998 during an outbreak of the disease in Kampung Sungai Nipah district of Malaysia. Symptoms from infection include fever, cough, headache, shortness of breath, and confusion. This may worsen into a coma over a day or two. Complications include inflammation of the brain.

Nipah is highly pathogenic to humans, with high case fatality rate, ranging from 40 to 75%. As of now, there is no vaccine for the virus and the disease has the potential to leave victims in a comatose state.

Nipah is spread through contact with bodily fluids and, due to the unavailability of a vaccine, the treatment for the virus is merely supportive care in order to make patients comfortable.

The World Health Organization has assigned medical experts in order to contain the situation. They have now been flown over to India to help tackle the disease which is listed alongside Ebola and Zika as one of eight priority diseases that could cause a global epidemic.

Since 1998, Nipah has claimed the lives of more than 260 in Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia.

Back then, the host of the lethal disease were pigs. However, this time, it seems to be disseminated by fruit bats, with a family finding a number of dead bats in a well at their home. The family has since lost four members to the pernicious disease.

The virus also took the life one of the nurses in Kozhikode district, which is allegedly the epicenter of the outbreak, according to Health Minister KK Shailaja. She subsequently announced the payment of compensation to her family and others who lost family members to the infection.

"All steps to prevent the spread of the virus have been taken," she added, urging people not to destroy colonies of fruit bats.

Nearly 200 patients are receiving hospital treatment in Malappuram and Kozhikode, with three under intensive care and 26 under observation, according to local media.

More than 50 people lost their lives to the virus during previous outbreaks in the country, one in 2001 and the other in 2007 respectively.

The state of West Bengal, which shares borders with Bangladesh, suffered the brunt of the disease along with the neighboring country in these outbreaks.

The government of India has urged people to take necessary precautions and issued advice on preventative measures, with the union health ministry aiming to keep the latest outbreak localized.

The government has instructed people to not consume fruits that appear to have tooth or claw marks or have fallen to the ground. Even traveling to affected states should be avoided, according to the statement.

The situation, however, is slowly turning chaotic. After several bats were found dead at a secondary school in the state of Himachal Pradesh, clinical tests were ordered immediately.

Fortunately, the evaluation showed that the bats were not carrying the virus.

On Wednesday, health officials were checking if the brain-damaging virus had spread to Karnataka, a state neighboring Kerala, after two suspected cases were reported in its southern region.

According to Rajesh BV, a health official in Karnataka, symptoms of Nipah first surfaced when a 75-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman from the coastal city of Mangalore had contact with infected patients after traveling to Kerala.

"They are not confirmed Nipah cases yet, so there is no need to panic," he said by telephone. "The situation is under control."

He further added that samples of the patients' blood have been sent for testing and the results are due Thursday.

On the other hand, another state health official, Rajeev Sadanandan, said the outbreak  "remains highly localized" with all the cases linked to only one family. He declared that it was safe to travel to Kerala, which is a popular tourist destination and is known for its lush greenery.

"Since there are many foreigners who travel to Kerala, we are advising they can avoid these districts for abundant caution," he told Reuters.

On Thursday, medical experts wearing hazmat suits and breathing masks buried the latest victim in Kozhikode.