Simple good hygiene practices such as frequent washing of hands and cooking food properly before consuming it can help you avoid contracting the brain-damaging Nipah virus. The virus has claimed 13 lives in Kerala till now and led to quarantining of at least 40 others.
The Nipah virus is a zoonotic disease that is naturally transmitted from vertebrate animals to humans, while human-to-human transmission has also been documented. It was first identified among pig farmers in Malaysia, and the disease surfaced in Siliguri, West Bengal in 2001 and again in 2007.
Historically, the virus largely remained in a cluster, and affected those that came in close contact to the patients. The latest outbreak in India has so far affected mainly four districts of Kerala — Kozhikode, and its neighbouring districts of Malappuram, Kannur and Wayanad. People in other states do not have much to worry, unless they travel to the affected areas, or come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus.
“All the previous epidemics were reported to be in clusters and historical evidence shows no simultaneous outbreaks,” says Vidya Menon, clinical professor at the Department of Medicine, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi. “So people who come in close contact to the patients are usually the ones who acquire the disease. If that contact group increases or travels to other places, the disease is likely to spread,” Menon said.
Nipah virus can be transmitted by infected pigs, or by fruit bats, through their secretions of saliva, urine or faeces. The other mode of transmission is human to human, through body secretions and respiratory secretions. Contracting Nipah causes an upper respiratory infection, leading to fever, body ache, breathlessness and cough. “There is no need to panic, but if you have symptoms similar to this or if you have visited the state recently, visit a doctor at the earliest,” said Suranjit Chatterjee, Senior Consultant — Internal Medicine at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.
Depending upon the exposure to the virus, it can also lead to further complication like Encephalitis — inflammation of the brain. This can result in mental confusion and deteriorate into a coma. “The progression is very severe. While the incubation period is long for some, in an average in 90% of cases, the disease manifests itself within two weeks of exposure to the virus,” Menon said.
“Those infected should be isolated for at least 10-15 days, till the virulence of the virus settles and our immune system also starts fighting,” says Vikas Maurya, Head of Department — Pulmonolgy, Fortis Hospital — Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi. There is no treatment as such for it but supportive care is given to the affected patients, which means treating the symptoms differently.
“For example, people suffering from fever are treated for it, for those with breathlessness, support is provided to them with artificial ventilators, and for those with seizures or convulsions, anti-epileptic drugs are given as a support to the brain,” Menon said.
The Kerala government has now recommended using the anti-viral Ribavarin as a life-saving measure. It is not a proven treatment, but is approved because of a few studies that have proved the anti-viral’s benefits. “Beginning on Thursday, the Kerala government has recommended using Ribavarin but only in proven cases,” Menon said.
Besides maintaining hygiene, experts suggest you avoid eating fruits that have any paw marks on it or is contaminated. Food should be properly cooked before consuming. Restricting mobility to and from the affected areas can curtail the virus up to some extent, Chatterjee suggested. “If you are travelling to the infected area, use a general mask. While coughing, close your mouth with a handkerchief or cough on your sleeve, wash hands properly, and maintain hygiene,” Menon said.