By Munsif Vengattil and D. Jose
BENGALURU/KOCHI (Reuters) – A rare virus spread by fruit bats, which can cause flu-like symptoms and brain damage, has killed 10 people in southern India, health officials said on Tuesday, with at least nine more being treated.
Infectious disease outbreaks can be a challenge in India, the world’s second most populous country, where infection control and surveillance systems are weak, leading to hundreds of deaths annually from diseases such as mosquito-borne dengue.
There is no vaccine for the Nipah virus, which is spread through body fluids and can cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, the World Health Organization (WHO) says. The usual treatment is to provide supportive care.
The first death in the outbreak in Kerala took place on Friday, the state’s health minister, K.K. Shailaja, said.
“This is a new situation for us. We have no prior experience in dealing with the Nipah virus,” she said. “We are hopeful we can put a stop to the outbreak.”
Of 18 people screened for the virus, 12 proved positive, Shailaja told a news conference, adding that 10 of the sufferers had died and the other two were being closely monitored.
The Indian government dispatched a team of officials from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to investigate the outbreak, it said in a statement.
“Since all the contacts are under observation and steps to avoid exposure through animal vectors have been taken, there is no reason for people to panic,” it added.
The WHO is in contact with government officials in the affected areas, Henk Bekedam, its India representative, said in a statement.
Health experts stressed the need for early detection and infection control to arrest the virus’s spread. “It will not spread like wildfire because it is not airborne, but it can be risky if they don’t follow proper infection control procedures,” said Dr D Himanshu, of King George’s Medical University in the northern city of Lucknow.
While the cause of the outbreak is still being investigated, visiting national health officials tied the initial deaths to “many bats” in a well in Kerala from which the victims drew water, the government said.
Samples from those bats were among the 60 sent to laboratories to be screened for the virus, it added.
The cases provoked concern among residents, a local government official said.
“A large number of people affected by fever, and even minor ailments, are swarming to hospitals, fearing they have contracted the disease,” said U.V. Jose.
Health officials in Kerala, which attracts many tourists, aims to soon issue a travel advisory, tourism official P Bala Kiran said.
The Nipah virus was first detected in Malaysia in 1998, and India has suffered two outbreaks in the last decade, killing 50 people, according to the WHO.
(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru and D. Jose in Kochi; Additional reporting and writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Euan Rocha and Clarence Fernandez)