Officials in India are racing to contain a virus outbreak that has claimed the life of a 12-year-old boy and is deadlier than COVID-19 — the Nipah virus.
CBS News reports the boy was taken to the hospital last week in the southern Kerala state with a high-grade fever and suspected brain inflammation. After blood tests, he was diagnosed with the Nipah virus and died Sunday.
Officials are using contact tracing, quarantine and hospitalization on the 188 people who have come into contact with the preteen to prevent a wide-spread outbreak, CBS reported.
“This is one of those viruses we really need to pay attention to,” John Lednicky, a research professor at the University of Florida’s Environmental and Global Health department, told USA TODAY.
The reemergence of the Nipah virus is compounding a problem in the nation already grappling with the effects of COVID-19, with over 30,000 new COVID cases reported on Monday.
What is the Nipah virus?
The Nipah virus was first discovered in Malaysia and Singapore in 1999 after multiple pigs and people became sick, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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So far, the only recorded outbreaks have occurred in Asia.
It’s classified as a zoonotic virus that initially spreads from animals to people. It can also be transmitted through contaminated food and directly between people.
The Nipah virus is not related to COVID-19, but may have the same originating source — bats.
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The host of the virus is fruit bats, also known as flying foxes because of their large size.
Lednicky said pigs are highly susceptible to the virus and can come in contact with it through fruit material the bats have been consuming.
Other domestic animals like horses, goats, sheep, cats and dogs can become infected, according to the CDC.
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Unsuspecting humans may also come into contact with contaminated fruit and become infected.
“There’s probably an underestimate of people who have been infected with the virus due to people not being properly diagnosed,” Lednicky said.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Symptoms of the Nipah virus vary from asymptomatic to acute respiratory infection and — at its worst — encephalitis, a swelling of active tissue in the brain that can be fatal, according to the World Health Organization.
Infected people can experience sore throat, fever, headaches and muscle pains. If the infection progresses, dizziness and altered consciousness could be signs of encephalitis.
The start of symptoms ranges from 4 to 14 days after exposure and there are currently no vaccines available to treat the virus.
“There’s no good treatment for it,” Lednicky said. “They put you in the hospital, but there’s really nothing much else they can do for you.”
WHO reports that 40% to 75% of Nipah cases are fatal compared to COVID-19 fatality rate of around 2%.
Should people in US be worried?
Lednicky said people in the U.S. don’t need to worry much about Nipah virus because it has been isolated to Asia regions where fruit bats live.
But there’s always a chance someone can bring the virus into a new area.
“The concern really is how people travel,” Lednicky said. “Years ago when travel was more restricted, you didn’t see unusual pathogens traveling.”
Lednicky hopes that U.S. can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and take on a more proactive approach versus a reactive one.
“There are going to be more emerging pathogens,” he said.
“It seems like history repeats itself because we’re unprepared.”