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“Serious epidemic potential” of Nipah virus

The Nipah virus, though rare and currently isolated, has the potential to be one of the world’s next major epidemics according to health experts.

The village of Kampung Sungai Nipah in Malaysia, where the first outbreak of the Nipah virus occurred in 1998. Image credit: Malekhanif at Malay Wikipedia [GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons
“Twenty years have passed since its discovery, but the world is still not adequately equipped to tackle the global health threat posed by Nipah virus,” said Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which co-led a Nipah conference last week in Singapore.

While rare, the Nipah virus is a worrying prospect due to the disease having a seventy percent mortality rate, making the threat to life – especially in a large-scale outbreak – considerable. More troubling still is that there is no known vaccination for the disease, making fears of large outbreaks more pronounced due to the absence of immunisation as a prevention tool.

The virus is passed on from animals to humans and is most commonly known to be passed on through fruit bats. This typically limits the condition to rural areas or urban areas within close proximity of forestry, though it is not entirely isolated to these regions due to the potential for the virus to be passed on through food products.

Bites or direct contact with the animal are not necessarily required to pass on the infection. One of the more common means of infection is through drinking raw date palm sap. Infected animals that have urinated or defecated in this date palm sap can leave traces of the virus. This in turn passes the virus on to humans that consume the sap.

The Nipah virus is of such concern that CEPI made it one of its first priorities. Though acknowledging it as currently being isolated, they note that due to the potential of human-to-human infection, along with the dense population of southeast Asia, the virus could at any point cause a significant outbreak.

“Outbreaks of Nipah virus have so far been confined to south and southeast Asia, but the virus has serious epidemic potential, because Pteropus fruit bats that carry the virus are found throughout the tropics and sub-tropics, which are home to more than two billion people,” Hatchett said.

India’s previous aptitude at containing outbreaks of the virus was admirable, notably in the state of Kerala — in one instance, controlling the outbreak entirely in just a month. However, with no current vaccination or treatments available, a larger scale outbreak in an area such as a city could prove all but unmanageable outside of quarantining the area. For this reason groups such as the CEPI — and even the World Health Organization — are making Nipah one of the top priorities in infectious disease.

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