The southern Indian state of Kerala is currently facing an outbreak of the rare but potentially serious Nipah virus, with at least two deaths, according to local reports.
Health officials they closed schools and offices in Kerala and hundreds of residents are being tested.
Despite the Nipah virus’ high death rate and no specific treatment, experts said the virus is highly unlikely to lead to a global emergency and that it is a reminder of how the destruction of the natural environment has led to the disease’s transmission from animals to humans.
Here’s what you need to know about the virus, including signs and symptoms, how the virus is transmitted and what treatments are available.
What is Nipah virus?
Nipah virus is a type of zoonotic disease, meaning it primarily occurs in animals and can initially spread between animals and humans.
It was first discovered in 1999 after the disease affected both pigs and humans in Malaysia and Singapore. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus is most commonly spread by bats, also known as flying foxes, and can be spread by direct or indirect contact.
“People can become infected if they have close contact with an infected animal or bodily fluids, such as bat saliva on fruit, and then it flies off and the person eats the fruit,” says Dr. Diana Finkel. associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told ABC News.
The virus can also spread from person to person by being in close contact or coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms usually occurs between 4 and 14 days after exposure. The most common symptom is fever, followed by headache, cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing and vomiting.
Diagnosing the virus in its early stages is often difficult because the symptoms resemble many other diseases, e.g said the CDC.
The virus can lead to serious symptoms, including disorientation, drowsiness, seizures or encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain. They can go into a coma within 24 to 48 hours, according to the CDC.
The fatality rate among all cases ranges between 40% and 75%, the federal health agency said. Among survivors, some permanent changes were noted, including persistent convulsions.
What treatments are available?
They currently exist no specific treatment available for Nipah virus with treatment limited to supportive care including rest and fluids.
Experts said a treatment is currently under development. One of them is a monoclonal antibody, which are immune system proteins that are made in a laboratory and mimic the antibodies that the body naturally produces to fight a virus.
Finkel said the drug has already completed Phase I clinical trials and is currently being used on a compassionate basis.
Researchers are also studying the potential benefit of remdesivir – an intravenous drug used to treat COVID-19 – which has been shown to work well in primates with Nipah virus.
What is the probability of Nipah virus spreading?
Experts said that while anything is possible, it is highly unlikely that the outbreak in India will lead to a global spread.
Amidst the outbreak in India, there has been limited human-to-human transmission.
“It’s a small world, but the likelihood of someone getting infected or a bat being here right now with the Nipah virus is very unlikely,” Finkel said.
She said when people are exposed in healthcare facilities, it’s often because proper standard precautions, such as not wearing gloves or masks, were not followed.
Experts say the outbreak is also a reminder of the potentially devastating effects of habitat destruction and climate change, which may lead to more interaction between infected animals and humans.
“If you take this current outbreak in Kerala as an example, you have to think why are the bats that are harboring this Nipah virus, why are they coming into contact with humans?” Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, director of the Washington Center for One Health Research, told ABC News. “What’s changing in terms of the movement of bat populations? Are they leaving (the) habitat where there weren’t too many people? Are they now spending more time near people?”