The deadly virus India is racing to contain as five cases and 700 contacts identified

File. Health officials in full protective gear walk inside an isolation ward in October 2021 in the Indian state of Kerala after 23-year-old was infected by the potentially deadly Nipah virus (AFP via Getty Images)
File. Health officials in full protective gear walk inside an isolation ward in October 2021 in the Indian state of Kerala after 23-year-old was infected by the potentially deadly Nipah virus (AFP via Getty Images)

Experts in India’s southern state of Kerala have been asked to gather samples of fluids from bats and fruit trees in an area where the deadly Nipah virus has claimed the lives of two people, with three more testing positive.

This marks the fourth outbreak of the deadly virus in the state since 2018.

On Wednesday, a 24-year-old healthcare worker who had close contact with a Nipah patient tested positive for the virus, taking the total number of confirmed cases in Kerala to five.

There is currently no approved vaccine for the Nipah virus which spreads through contact with bodily fluids of infected bats, pigs, or humans, resulting in a mortality rate of up to 75 per cent among those who become infected.

Infected people initially develop symptoms that include fever, respiratory distress, headaches, and vomiting, according to the World Health Organization. Encephalitis and seizures can also occur in severe cases, leading to coma. The virus is included in the WHO’s list of pathogens with epidemic potential.

In response, the state government implemented containment zones and imposed restrictions to curb the virus’s spread. Authorities have issued an order for all educational institutions to remain closed on Thursday and Friday.

The patient contact list has raised significant concerns, as it now includes 700 individuals who have had contact with the infected patients. Among this group, 77 are classified as being at high risk, according to Kerala health minister Veena George.

As a precautionary measure, people at high risk of infection have been advised to stay within their homes. The travel routes of the two Nipah patients who passed away have been disclosed to people so as to prevent people from using them.

In Kozhikode, restrictions have been enforced, prohibiting large gatherings of people at festivals and events.

Local media reported that a total of 58 wards of Kozhikode district in Kerala have been designated as containment zones. In these zones, only essential services will be operational, and entry and exit will be restricted.

Shops selling essential goods are permitted to operate between 7am and 5pm, while pharmacies and health centres will have unrestricted operating hours.

Buses and vehicles travelling on national highways that pass through the containment zones are instructed not to make stops within the affected areas.

The neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have implemented testing requirements for people arriving from Kerala. They have also put plans in place to isolate those who display symptoms of influenza to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

The Nipah virus has the ability to infect a variety of animals, increasing the risk of its spread. It can be transmitted through direct contact with infected individuals or by consuming contaminated food.

The virus was first identified in 1999 during an outbreak that affected pig farmers and people closely associated with pigs in Malaysia and Singapore.

Nipah outbreaks occur sporadically, and previous infections in South Asia have been linked to the consumption of items contaminated with bat excreta.

According to the World Health Organization, the Nipah virus was also recognised in Bangladesh in 2001, and nearly annual outbreaks have occurred in the country since.

In Kerala, the first Nipah outbreak in 2018 resulted in the death of 21 out of 23 infected people. Subsequent outbreaks in 2019 and 2021 claimed the lives of two people each.

A 2001 outbreak in India and two more in Bangladesh killed 62 of 91 people infected.

In May, a Reuters investigation highlighted that certain parts of Kerala are among the global hotspots most vulnerable to outbreaks of bat-borne viruses. This heightened risk is attributed to the clearing of forests for development, which brings people and wildlife into closer contact.

During a high-level review meeting, chief minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan said that necessary preventive measures have been implemented and that there is no cause for panic.

Former health minister and senior leader K K Shailaja also assured that there is no need to worry about the Nipah outbreak in Kozhikode. She stated that the current situation is not as alarming as it was in 2018.

Additional reporting with agencies