At least 10 people have now died in southern India from confirmed cases of the deadly Nipah virus, officials have said.
Dozens more have been quarantined amid public panic in the state of Kerala, and a team of experts has been dispatched to the coastal region from India’s National Centre for Disease Control in the capital, New Delhi.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) told The Independent it was in close contact with local experts and awaiting further assessment reports. Dr Henk Bekedam, the body’s WHO Representative to India, praised the authorities for their “quick response to the situation”.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Kerala’s health minister K K Shailaja said that of 18 people screened for the virus since the first death on Friday, 12 had tested positive and 10 had died. A nurse who treated suspected Nipah patients at a hospital in Perambra, 31-year-old Lini Puthusheri, was named as the tenth victim.
Though only identified in 1999, Nipah ranks alongside Ebola and Zika on the latest WHO list of diseases most likely to result in a catastrophic global pandemic. There is no vaccine or cure, and the virus is fatal in up to 70 per cent of cases.
The virus can be transmitted from human to human. Fruit bats are seen to be the most common animal carriers in southern Asia, and previous outbreaks have stemmed from people drinking raw date palm sap in areas where the bats are active.
J P Nadda, the health minister of India, said the central government was “extending full support to the state”. He said the team from the National Centre for Disease Control had arrived in Kerala on Tuesday, and that two more from leading medical facilities in Delhi would be arriving on Wednesday.
Ms Shailaja said the health department in the state, which is a popular destination for tourists, was “hopeful we can put a stop to the outbreak”.
“This is a new situation for us,” she said. “We have no prior experience in dealing with the Nipah virus.”
Health officials said they found mangoes bitten by bats in a home in Kozhikode city, where three of the first patients died – all members of the same family.
U V Jose, a local government official, said bats were found in a well used by the family. “We have closed the well and evacuated the people living nearby,” he said.
Animal control agents have been ordered to collect bats for testing across the city.
Neighbours and other residents had been concerned by the deaths and were “swarming” local hospitals, Mr Jose said.
“A large number of people affected by fever, and even minor ailments, are swarming to hospitals, fearing they have contracted the disease. We’ve sought the help of private hospitals to tide over the crisis.”
The nurse who died in Perambra, Ms Puthusheri, was praised for her “selfless service” by Kerala’s Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan.
Ms Puthusheri had been “disturbed” by the death of her patient, her husband Sajeesh told The Hindu newspaper. He said she developed a fever herself “a day or two” later.
Fears of transmission meant she was unable to speak to her husband or two young children in person before her death, and the health department requested her body be immediately cremated rather than returned to her community.
Kerala’s tourism minister, Kadakampally Surendran, was among many who shared on social media a letter Ms Puthusheri wrote to her husband from her isolation unit. In a mixture of English and the local Malayalam language, she told him: “I think I am almost on my way. I may not be able to see you again. Sorry. Please look after our children.”
The WHO says Nipah has an incubation period of five to 14 days before people show symptoms, which can make it harder to stop the infection from spreading.
“Tracing all contacts of the affected persons in the recent past, testing and observing them, and treating them early, is the key to rapidly curtail the spread of the disease and minimise fatalities,” Dr Bekedam said. He added that it was vital for hospitals to put in place “good infection control practices”.
“WHO has provided guidelines and information on Nipah virus to the government and stands ready for any other request for assistance,” he said.