We’ve known about Nipah virus—and that it could cause a global pandemic—for twenty years. But we’re still in the first stages of fighting it.
There’s “currently no specific drugs or vaccines for Nipah virus infection,” Linfa Wang, a bat-borne virus expert at Duke University’s Global Health Institute and conference co-chair, told Reuters this week. Wang and other experts are currently gathered in Singapore for the first-ever Nipah virus conference. At the two-day event they’re talking about everything from the history of Nipah outbreaks to ways forward for containing the disease. They’re also hoping to raise its profile.
The Southern Indian state of Kerala is now battling another deadly outbreak of the Nipah virus, its fourth since 2018. .. It has been 20 years since the harrowing, practically yearly outbreaks started rocking Bangladesh, claiming more than 200 lives to date. And still there's no treatment for Nipah. There's no vaccine. It remains on the World Health Organization's list of viruses with pandemic potential. That's because it has two main tricks.
It took more than a decade to figure all out, but eventually scientists realized that pigs had been getting Nipah virus for years. Maybe more. They very likely picked it up from bats.
Sometimes the answer to a health mystery lies in a swig of booze. In Bangladesh in recent years, there have been repeated mini-outbreaks of a disease called Nipah virus – three people here, four there. Some people develop no symptoms. But in others, the virus can progress from a fever to fatal brain inflammation within a week. A few years ago, epidemiologists figured out that people were likely getting Nipah from drinking raw date palm sap, a sweet drink popular in the winter, when the sap is easy to tap from trees pierced with a spigot.
As an outbreak continues to claim lives in India, a Tufts expert explains the rare and deadly viral disease’s origins and why the world needs to pay attention.
A worrisome trend during this pandemic is erosion of trust in science, widespread misinformation, and sidelining of experts and public health agencies. In contrast, Malaysia and Kerala have backed and trusted their scientists and experts. They have also done well with public and media communication.
Is Nipah the next Ebola? Not quite, says Stanford University epidemiologist Stephen Luby, who has studied the disease in Bangladesh, where there have been either outbreaks or sporadic cases almost every year since 2001. The two known Nipah strains currently circulating aren’t all that easy to transmit.
The Nipah infection produces flulike symptoms, including fevers, body aches and vomiting, which often progress to acute respiratory syndrome and encephalitis, or brain inflammation. Some survivors show persistent neurological effects, including personality changes.
There are two pieces of good news when it comes to Nipah virus. The first is that it’s only ever been observed in humans in five countries. More on the second later. Nipah virus is a nasty disease to say the least. It was first identified in 1998 in Malaysia, in the area for which it is named. It is a member of the henipavirus genus of paramyxoviruses which also includes Hendra virus (measles is a distant cousin).
Where Nipah once moved from bats to pigs to humans, in Kerala it jumped from human to human.
Nipah is truly scary and a cause of huge worry but proper knowledge and precaution can help prevent the virus from spreading. Let us together fight this life threatening infection and stop it’s spread.
It could be the next pandemic you’ve never heard of.
NiV infection in humans has a range of clinical presentations, from asymptomatic infection to acute respiratory syndrome and fatal encephalitis. NiV is also capable of causing disease in pigs and other domestic animals. There is no vaccine for either humans or animals. The primary treatment for human cases is intensive supportive care.