What Is Nipah Virus? As 12-Year-Old Dies of Bat-Borne Disease, Epidemiologist Says Climate Change Is to Blame

Health officials sealed off an area in Kerala in order to isolate people who have potentially been exposed to Nipah.Health officials sealed off an area in Kerala in order to isolate people who have potentially been exposed to Nipah.
Health officials sealed off an area in Kerala in order to isolate people who have potentially been exposed to Nipah.Getty

While the Nipah virus is significantly more deadly than COVID-19, with 40% to 70% of Nipah cases becoming fatal, it is also much less transmittable.

Following the Nipah virus-related death of a 12-year-old boy in India over the weekend, government officials have identified at least two local health care workers have tested positive and nearly 200 people that may have come into contact with the boy through escalated contact tracing efforts, Kerala state officials said.

The unidentified boy had originally been admitted to the hospital with a high fever last week, and died Sunday after tests confirmed a Nipah infection. Authorities have since sealed off an area within a two-mile radius of the boy’s home. 

“As of now, there is no need to panic, but we need to exercise caution,” Kerala’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Veena George, said, according to local media.

The southern state is also continuing to be devastated by COVID-19, with more than 17% of tests coming back positive on Wednesday and death rates on the rise, NDTV reported.

While the Nipah virus is not related to the coronavirus causing today’s pandemic, the disease is significantly deadlier than COVID-19 and has been on the radar of scientists working to prevent the next global pandemic. The World Health Organization has categorized Nipah as a priority disease, along with the likes of COVID-19, Ebola and Zika.

But epidemiologists say the concern surrounding the latest Nipah outbreak is not on the virus’ potential impact on humanity, but on humanity’s impact on the environment.

Dr. Raina Plowright, an associate professor of epidemiology at Montana State University, explained in an interview with Inside Edition Digital that the Nipah virus being detected in more and more areas signals a red flag in climate change.

“All of a sudden, we have these new diseases emerging,” Dr. Plowright told Inside Edition Digital. “It’s our relationship with nature, or destruction of nature. It’s the loss of critical habitat for wild animals. It’s the changing of those conditions through climate change. They’re the issues that I’d be really concerned about with pushing these viruses out of nature into human populations.”

How is the Nipah Virus Contracted?

The Nipah virus is a zoonotic virus, meaning it transmits from animals to humans.

Like many suspect of COVID-19, the Nipah virus originates in bats.

Plowright explained that past outbreaks have been linked to contaminated date palm sap, which is a popular drink in some parts of the world. “As [the sap] runs out of the tree and into the pot, either the bat saliva or bat urine can contaminate the pot and that pot is then sold fresh on the streets in the morning,” she said.

How Dangerous is the Nipah Virus?

According to the CDC, between 40% to 70% of the Nipah cases are fatal. In comparison, Johns Hopkins University reports that only 2% of COVID-19 cases are fatal.

“Some outbreaks have had fatality rates in the high 90s,” Plowright said.

However, unlike COVID-19, Nipah does not have a high transmissibility rate. Nipah has an RO (R naught) of less than one, meaning on average, each infected person will infect less than one additional person. By contrast, scientists estimate that the RO of COVID-19 is around three, with some models showing a value of about two and others estimating that the number could be higher than six.

“The key feature of COVID that makes it so dangerous is that it’s so transmissible. It has presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission, so people are transmitting it before they know they are sick. And therefore, it’s very hard to contain through the usual public heath tools, which is test, trace, isolate,” she explained. “Whereas with Nipah virus, by the time someone has enough virus that they’re able to transmit it to someone else, they’re actually very, very sick. It’s easier to identify those people. They’re less likely to be walking around in the community, infecting others.”

There is no cure or vaccine for Nipah.

What Are Symptoms of Nipah Virus?

The most common – and the deadliest – symptoms of Nipah virus include encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, and pneumonia.

In milder cases, symptoms can include headache, vomiting, sore throat and muscle aches.

When Was the Nipah Virus First Discovered?

It was first discovered in 1999 in Malaysia and Singapore, where it infected 300 people and led to 100 deaths, the CDC reported.

How Rare is the Nipah Virus Today?

While uncommon in most of the world, parts of Bangledesh experience Nipah outbreaks nearly annually. “In Bangladesh, there’s a very deliberate surveillance for Nipah virus,” Plowright said. “Whereas in other parts of the world, a small cluster of deaths might not be investigated.”

Plowright suspects that cases of the Nipah virus are likely more common than is known. “I think people have probably died of Nipah every year for decades in Bangladesh. Until the outbreak in Malaysia, there wasn’t that diagnostic tool,” she explained. “In lower income countries, in many parts of the world, people are probably walking into hospitals every day with encephalitis with an unknown diagnosis, or a respiratory disease or fever.

“What infections are percolating throughout human communities in the world right now that we’re just not detecting because there’s not an adequate public health system in the country?” she said.

Why Are We Suddenly Seeing an Increase of Bat-Related Viruses in Humans?

For Plowright, the answer is habitat destruction and the devastating impacts on human activity in the environment.  As deforestation forces animals from their natural habitats, disease-carrying animals that were not previously a threat to humans are now forced to interact more and more with people.

“Increasing human populations, increasing livestock populations and encroaching into wildlife area … Climate change is changing the population structures and behaviors of animals,” Plowright explained.

In order to prevent new diseases and possible future pandemics, Plowright explained it’s important to not only focus on epidemiology and vaccine development, but to turn our efforts into conserving animal habitats so those carrying potentially dangerous viruses do not mix with human populations.

“There are probably environmental changes affecting bat populations. In Southeast Asia and parts of the world where there’s rapid deforestation, we’ve probably got these outbreaks going on all the time. We’re just not detecting them,” she said. ”And that’s when you let these viruses percolate in.”

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