Bengaluru/New Delhi: When Valachuketti Moosa, 62, from Kerala’s Kozhikode district, found dead bats in the well inside his house, little did he know that it would lead to a public health crisis.
While Moosa’s two sons and sister-in-law, who had volunteered to remove the carcasses and sanitize the well, were the first victims of the Nipah virus attack, the deadly disease has claimed three more lives, including a local hospital staff who had nursed Moosa’s family members.
According to the office of the district collector U.V. Jose, the death toll stands at six as of Monday evening, while at least 20 others, including Moosa, may have been infected with the deadly virus. Local television reports, however, claimed that the number of affected people could be 25, or more.
Nipah virus causes respiratory and encephalitic diseases with high fatality rates. It spreads through direct contact with infected people, bats and pigs, or even from contaminated fruits eaten by bats. So far, no therapeutics or vaccines have been approved for use in humans against the virus.
Doctors have advised prevention as the best treatment as currently there is no vaccine for Nipah virus.
Kerala’s health minister K.K. Shailaja, who visited Kozhikode on Monday, said people showing signs of the virus attack, have been kept in isolation. The outbreak may have spread through water, she added.
The outbreak and the high fatality rate has thrown the state government off balance as it is struggling to prevent the spread of the disease. Shailaja was on local TV channels telling the public not to panic.
Doctors are on high vigil and are taking precautions while treating people with fever and respiratory problems, said a health official, who did not want to be identified.
Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan assured the people that he was in touch with central government and World Health Organization (WHO) officials, to prevent the spread of the disease. “The government is doing all that is possible to keep the situation under control," he said in a Facebook post.
J.P. Nadda, Union minister of health and family welfare, assured support to the state government and sent a multi-disciplinary central team from National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to immediately visit the district. “We are closely monitoring the situation. I have spoken to K. K. Shailaja and assured them support."
The state government has also formed an emergency task force under the district collector, and has opened a helpline. State labour minister and the local MLA of Calicut’s Perambra, T.P. Ramakrishnan, has directed both public and private hospitals to cooperate in battling the crisis.
According to WHO, Nipah Virus Infection (NiV) is an emerging infectious disease of public health importance in the South-East Asia Region. Fruit bats have been identified as reservoirs of the virus. Outbreaks of Nipah in south Asia have a strong seasonal pattern and a limited geographical range.
Doctors have advised prevention as the best treatment as currently there is no vaccine for Nipah virus. “As treatment options are limited, focus on NiV management should be on prevention. Preventive strategies include interventions to prevent farm animals from acquiring NiV eating fruit contaminated by bats. Consumption of contaminated date palm sap including toddy should be avoided. Other more acceptable methods would include physical barriers to prevent bats from accessing and contaminating palm sap," said Vidya Menon, senior medical administrator, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kerala.
“Healthcare workers caring for patients with suspected or confirmed NiV should implement standard precautions, including hand washing, when caring for patients and handling specimens. For known contacts, standard contact precautions include use of a gown, cap, mask and gloves," she said.