As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, there is another virus that is one of the next few pandemic threats, warns a scientist who is one of the inventors of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine.
It’s called the Nipah virus and there is currently no treatment or vaccine available.
“If we had a Delta type of Nipah virus, all of a sudden we would have a highly transmissible virus with a 50 percent mortality rate,” said Dame Sarah Gilbert during an event at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in the UK on Thursday.
So what is the Nipah virus and should we be concerned?
The Nipah virus is not new and has been lurking for years. In 1999, the virus arrived in central Malaysia after finding a host in bats, which then stopped to eat from fruit trees hanging over pig farms.
The pigs ate the remains of the bats and the virus was passed on through the pigs to the people who worked with them.
How is it transmitted?
It is believed that transmission occurred through unprotected exposure to secretions from pigs or through unprotected contact with the tissue of a diseased animal.
About 105 Malaysians died within eight months of contracting the virus after suffering from comas, fever and encephalitis. Nipah killed about 40 percent of those infected.
Nipah virus can be transmitted to humans from animals as well as by contaminated foods and human-to-human contact.
What is the threat today?
Nipah now erupts annually in Bangladesh and also emerges periodically in eastern India. In September, a 12-year-old boy died after contracting the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says in subsequent outbreaks in Bangladesh and India, consumption of fruits or fruit products (such as raw date palm juice) contaminated with urine or saliva from infected fruit bats was the most likely source of infection.
According to the WHO, countries with certain bat species may also be at risk, including Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family are the natural host of the Nipah virus.
Human-to-human transmission of the Nipah virus has also been reported among family and caregivers of infected patients.
From 2001 to 2008, around half of reported cases in Bangladesh were due to human-to-human transmission through providing care to infected patients.
How deadly is the virus?
The fatality rate in reported cases is estimated at between 40 per cent and 75 per cent, according to the WHO.
Humans can develop asymptomatic infections but symptoms can range from mild to severe respiratory infection, and fatal encephalitis (brain inflammation).
Infected people initially develop symptoms including fever, headaches, muscle pain, vomiting and sore throat. This can be followed by dizziness, drowsiness, altered consciousness, and neurological signs that indicate acute encephalitis.
Some people can also experience atypical pneumonia and severe respiratory problems. Encephalitis and seizures occur in severe cases and can progress into a coma.
There is currently no treatment or vaccine for Nipah for humans or animals. The main treatment for humans is supportive care.