By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD
Like a bolt from the blue, the spectre of the deadly Nipah virus infection which was almost unknown to most people has come into the limelight over the past two weeks. The first known outbreak of this disease was from the village of Nipah in Malaysia in the year 1998 and fruit bats or flying foxes and pigs are the two animal vectors that are known to act as reservoirs and transmitters of the Nipah virus without themselves suffering from its harmful effects.
An interesting fact is that while the high physical activity and the consequent high body temperature of the bats is thought to be the reason why they themselves do not fall prey to the disease, it is puzzling why an animal as sedentary and as lazy as the pig is able to resist it! Incidentally, bats are known to harbour and transmit more than sixty different kinds of viruses, some of which are responsible for some of the most deadly diseases known to man.
The twin facts that there is no definitive cure for the Nipah virus disease and that it carries a very high mortality of almost 80 percent has naturally unnerved most people. People in our State are particularly worried that since it has made its appearance in our neighbouring State of Kerala it can easily spread to our State too. This is not too unjustified a fear as direct person to person contact is the main mode of transmission of this infection and there is a considerable interaction between the people of our two States. This fear is compounded by the fact that bats which are known to transmit this disease fly over long distances during their nocturnal feeding sorties, naturally without respecting State borders. Thanks to the social media, the fear of contracting this infection, which has gone viral, has gripped our society and it is spreading faster than the virus itself.
But this need not be so as most people are not exposed to pigs, bats or fruits infected by bats that have attempted to feed on them. The proper quarantining measures taken by our health authorities and the preventive measures advocated by them if followed by us can go a very long way in safeguarding our health. As a first step, people should stop believing all that they see about this infection and its management on social media posts. Much of what is circulated is utter rubbish without any scientific basis which seems to be fabricated endlessly by some very unscrupulous individuals who take a perverse delight in creating panic through rumour mongering.
It is sad that most educated and knowledgeable people too fall prey to this and become jittery quite needlessly. There are dozens of other very potent and incurable viral infections like Ebola, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome and Swine flu which keep surfacing from time to time somewhere in the world only to die a natural death without wiping us out. This is the natural history of most viral diseases.
The deadly Singapore flu epidemic of 1957 which ran through our country too was reportedly so deadly that it was said that people who carried the dead for their last rites had to be themselves carried just a few hours later. But that too was only a transient pestilence. So there is no point in panicking and resorting to all kinds of irrational preventive and curative measures that only end up making us all look like fools.
If you live well away from areas of its outbreak and if you happen to suffer from symptoms of malaise, cold, cough and fever, you are more likely to be having the common flu rather than anything serious. Any panic is completely unfounded. Well, if you do happen to be in the vicinity of the infection it makes sense to be a little careful and take some scientifically correct precautions. These include the incorporation of quarantine measures for patients and good personal hygiene measure like washing of hands for those who care for them. Washing fruits well before eating them and not consuming any fruits that appear to have been damaged by birds or bats makes sense.
Remember that this is not the first outbreak of Nipah Virus disease in India. It had made a brief appearance in West Bengal in the years 2001 and 2007 but luckily it disappeared without spreading. Let us hope that this time too we may see the same thing happening!