In battle mode, to keep Nipah at bay

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Public and hospitals to be equipped to pre-empt a third encounter with the deadly virus

Having battled Nipah virus for two consecutive years, Kerala is preparing to launch an all-out campaign across the State, as the next breeding season of bats approaches, to create awareness of Nipah virus transmission in an attempt to pre-empt a possible third encounter with the deadly virus.

“We now know that fruit bats (Pteropus/flying fox) harbour Nipah virus and that they are common in the State. We have learned a lot from our brush with Nipah. Now, our attempt is to build on that knowledge and take a public health approach, focussing on knowledge building, awareness creation and preparedness,” Rajan Khobragade, Principal Secretary (Health), said.

While one can do nothing about the pathogen present in nature, the challenge is to see if through a massive public awareness campaign, direct infection from animal to humans can be prevented, Dr. Khobragade added.

The No-Nipah or Zero Nipah campaign, expected to be launched next month, will have a disease surveillance and knowledge-building component on one hand, while the other will be to amp up the infection control protocols and guidelines and the general preparedness in hospitals.

In battle mode, to keep Nipah at bay

Senior health officials confirmed that a special drive was on to create a technical team, which will, with inputs from experts in virology, epidemiology and wildlife, put together information on Nipah.

Gaps remain

Even after unravelling the anatomy of two Nipah outbreaks through epidemiological investigations, crucial gaps remain as to how in both outbreaks the index cases contracted Nipah.

“It is just our postulation that the infection could have crossed over from bats to humans via fruits. The most important information that we can convey to the public is to stay away from areas where bats are roosting and not to eat fruits found on the ground,” a senior official said. The State is also tightening infection control measures in hospitals.

Misplaced priorities?

However, medical experts point out that one has no control over the natural spillovers of infection in the community.

“The risk of direct infections from bats to humans will always be there but the probability is low. Zero Nipah cannot be ensured just by telling the public to keep away from bats or not eating bat-bitten fruits. What is practical is ensuring that there is zero human to human transmission of Nipah,” a public health expert said.

For that, the health system’s priority should solely be on strengthening surveillance and strictly implementing infection control protocols in all hospitals irrespective of the breeding season of bats. Simple and sustained infection control policies — providing a mask to anyone walking into the hospital with a cough or cold — might save the day in the event of a deadly virus circulating in the community.

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