While the world continues to be on edge due to the unstoppable increase in coronavirus cases, the scientific community is becoming increasingly concerned about another threatening virus. We're talking about the Nipah virus, a pathogen with a high mortality rate that is causing concern among experts due to the lack of knowledge of its origin and how it is transmitted.
The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning last June due to the proliferation of cases in India. Although the new outbreak is controlled and localized, it is a highly contagious virus with a high mortality rate.
This is what concerns the experts right now, because if it gets out of control and crosses borders, it could cause a new pandemic with high levels of mortality. The Nipah virus has an incubation period between five days and two weeks, symptoms last between three and fourteen days, and it has a mortality rate between 40% and 75%. As we already know, coronavirus has a mortality rate of approximately 1%.
In addition, the Nipah virus can seriously damage the brain and leave significant neurological sequelae. Infected individuals suffer fever, headache, dizziness, disorientation and mental confusion. Respiratory symptoms may also appear during the first few days. But the most worrisome is encephalitis, which can lead to a coma in less than 24 hours.
The latest studies show a worrying tendency for this virus to spread and it is spreading faster and faster. In a large sample collected just a few weeks ago, researchers drew attention to the fact that the virus had already left the areas where it used to be found, the so-called "Nipah belt".
The virus was first diagnosed in Malaysia in 1998, but in recent years most cases have been localized in Bangladesh, India. Scientists believe that the infection is caused by the consumption of date palm juice, a popular substance in the countries where transmission is occurring. These trees are home to bats which serve as a chain of transmission between the virus and humans.
The good news is that the virus is very localized and that, given the current circumstances, it is unlikely to spread. The bad news is that there is no vaccine or treatment, which is why health authorities and experts have sounded the alarm. In fact, Moderna, the company that has produced one of the vaccines against coronavirus, is already working on a treatment to avoid a worldwide pandemic.
So far, there have been sporadic cases in Malaysia, Singapore, India and Bangladesh, and the WHO records at least 20 cases per year. But there is still no systematic surveillance, and they fear it could spread. In addition, there is a great lack of knowledge about the origin of the disease and its transmission, and this is also a major concern.
Outbreaks occur in Bangladesh almost every year, but the WHO has also found evidence of its presence in Cambodia, Ghana, the Philippines, Indonesia, Madagascar and Thailand.
Most experts believe that in the coming years, new pandemics will be unleashed that will put health systems around the world in check. Will the Nipah virus be the cause of one of them?
From the way it is transmitted, it doesn't look like it. There are still many doubts about the person-to-person transmission of the Nipah virus. Virologists believe that the next pandemic will come from a respiratory virus instead. Nevertheless, in outbreaks where Nipah has appeared, there have been chains of infection with a high transmission rate.
One of the world's most prestigious biologists, Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, is leading a study to detect diseases that can go from animals to humans. Her team was the first to detect COVID-19 outside China, and now they are raising awareness of the danger of Nipah, both for its levels of contagion and its mortality rate.