How Worried Should You Be About Nipah Virus?

How Worried Should You Be About Nipah Virus?
Photo: Jarun Ontakrai, Shutterstock

Infectious diseases have always been an issue, of course, but since the coronavirus pandemic first hit America in early 2020, public concern over viruses and illnesses is at a high. Lately, there’s been some chatter about something called Nipah virus.

What the hell is that? Is it going to shut everything down? Are we all going to die?

No. Calm down. We’re fine. The best way to arm ourselves against any kind of sickness is to be knowledgeable, not panic, and be proactive in efforts not to contract it. Let’s figure out what Nipah is all about.

What is Nipah virus?

According to the World Health Organisation, Nipah virus causes a range of clinical presentations. Someone who contracts it can have an asymptomatic infection or an acute respiratory infection and fatal encephalitis. (We had to look up “encephalitis,” too; it’s inflammation of the brain.)

The typical symptoms include a fever or headache for three days to two weeks. After that, some people get a cough, sore throat, and other respiratory problems. The symptoms may progress to swelling of brain cells, which will result in drowsiness, confusion, and maybe even a coma and death.

The case fatality rate is estimated to be 40% to 75%, but the rate varies based on where an outbreak happens and how prepared a given locality is in terms of epidemiological surveillance and clinical management. A zoonotic virus, it can be transmitted to humans from animals like bats or pigs or even from contaminated foods. It can also be transmitted from person to person, but it’s less contagious than the coronavirus and seems to require contact with bodily fluids. Like the coronavirus, Nipah has an incubation period of about four to 14 days from exposure to symptoms. That said, the WHO notes that “an incubation period as long as 45 days has been reported.”

There is no treatment or vaccine available, per the WHO, for people or for animals. The primary treatment for humans is supportive care.

So far, it sounds pretty bad, we will admit, but don’t freak out. A 40% to 75% fatality rate seems high, but remember that depends on where the outbreak is and the number of people who die is dependent on the number of people who even get it in the first place. Since its discovery in 1999, the virus is known to have killed a little over 260 people.

Why is Nipah in the news now?

A 12-year-old boy in the Indian state of Kerala died of Nipah earlier this month and, according to CBS News, authorities are rushing to contain the outbreak. So far, they’ve confirmed new infections while doing rigorous contact tracing. They’ve identified, quarantined, and tested people who might have come into contact with the boy and, as of last Monday, they’d identified 188, of whom 20 were considered high-risk primary contacts. So far, only two of those people have begun to show symptoms. The case marks the second time in three years that a Nipah virus outbreak has been reported in that state.

Since the virus was discovered in Malaysia in 1999, there have been multiple outbreaks. All of them have occurred in South and Southeast Asia. Between 1998 and 2018, the virus was responsible for 643 cases and 380 deaths. COVID-19, by contrast, has caused over 200 million cases and over 4 million deaths in less than two years.

As mentioned, the disease can affect a number of animals. The natural host for Nipah is the fruit bat, however, so areas where humans live in close proximity to them are higher-risk.

What does this mean for you?

An outbreak of a deadly virus halfway around the world is a tragedy, but you don’t need to panic. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommend preventing Nipah infection by regularly washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick bats and pigs, avoiding areas where bats might roost, avoiding consumption of raw date palm sap or fruits that might have been contaminated by bats, and avoiding contact with the blood or body fluids of anyone known to be infected with Nipah.

Note, please, that those guidelines are specifically for people “in areas where Nipah virus (NiV) outbreaks have occurred.” The CDC points directly to Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, and Singapore, then mentions countries where fruit bats live — like Cambodia, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, and Thailand — as possible locations that “may be at risk” in the future. Take some comfort in the number of countries that aren’t on either list, then take further comfort in the fact that you probably already do wash your hands, stay away from bats, and avoid other people’s bodily fluids.

It’s good to be knowledgeable and safe, but for now there’s no need to worry too much. Remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health and try not to catastrophize about an outbreak of a virus that has killed a few hundred people in over 20 years and is likely nowhere near where you live.

Stay aware, check the news, wear your mask in crowded spaces, and keep hand sanitizer on deck. You have enough to preoccupy yourself with amid the Delta variant spike, anyway.

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