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Zoonotic Disease Causes Concern in Bangladesh

9 March 2012, at 11:19pm

ANALYSIS - Local sources in Bangladesh report that a number of people in the north of the country have died from Nipah virus, writes senior editor, Jackie Linden. The latest cases appear to be related to consumption of date juice. The disease also affects pigs, a factor that is unlikely to play a role in the predominantly Muslim country.

In trying to control the highly infectious and fatal Nipah virus, BD News 24 in early February 2012 reported health minister, A.F.M. Ruhal Haque, saying that people do not want to accept health messages by breaking away from tradition.

Experts say a simple practice of not drinking raw date sap, or juice, can prevent the virus from causing infection.

At the time, Minister Ruhal Haque was briefing the media about the Nipah outbreak situation in the northern district of Joypurhat in order to raise awareness among the local population. All six infected people died in Joypurhat in this year's first outbreak of the disease last month.

By 7 February, the disease had killed 157 people out of 208 infected since 2001, when the virus first struck as an ‘unknown’ ailment.

At the same event, Professor Mahmudur Rahman, director of Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), which oversees infectious diseases, said: “Once infected, we don’t have a cure (for Nipah). Its fatality rate is over 75 per cent. It was 100 per cent this year and last year.”

He added that it is a highly contagious disease, and that the virus can pass from one person to another by contact. In Bangladesh, it has become a cause of concern for the health authorities.

Professor Rahman said that the virus is carried in the saliva and urine of fruit bats that feed on the dates. Boiling the date juice kills the virus.

Local records show that the Meherpur, Naogaon, Rajbari, Tangail, Faridpur, Manikganj, Rangpur, Kushtia and Thakurgaon districts of central and northwestern region are the most likely to have Nipah outbreaks, particularly between January and April.

The BD News 24 report added that it was believed that border districts of India had the virus.

A report from IRIN Asia the following week, in mid–February, reported 30 deaths from Nipah virus in Bangladesh since the start of 2011.

Neither of these local sources has reported further cases of Nipah virus in Bangladesh since then, and neither have the World Health Organization (WHO) or ProMED.

In February 2004, WHO reported 22 cases, including 17 deaths, from Nipah virus in the same region of Bangladesh, and an additional 51 cases were under investigation. There were preliminary reports of a cluster of 30 cases, including 18 deaths, attributed to Nipah virus in Faridpur district in April 2004.

Nipah Virus and the Link to Pigs

In 1997, a combination of deforestation, drought and wildfires in Malaysia caused flying foxes – large fruit bats now known to be the reservoir for the virus – to migrate from their natural rainforest habitat to seek nourishment and shelter in fruit orchards surrounding pig farms, according to Health Map. It is believed that pigs contracted the virus by scavenging fruit contaminated with bat urine and saliva.

The virus spread rapidly from pig to pig and from them to farm workers who had been in close contact with the pigs.

Malaysian pig farmers had sold their livestock across Asia continent and by early 1999, the first cases of Nipah virus appeared in Singapore.

In March that year, the virus was identified, allowing public health authorities to initiate rigorous control methods to impede the spread of the disease, such as banning the import of pigs from Malaysia, closing slaughterhouses and culling more than one million pigs. The disease was called Nipah disease after the Malaysian village where it was first identified.

While these procedures helped control the virus, approximately 40 per cent of patients infected with the disease had already died, according to Health Map. Additionally, the outbreak almost destroyed the Malaysian pig industry. The government reportedly suffered a loss of approximately US$450 million.

Further Reading

- Find out more information on Nipah virus in pigs by clicking here.