Nipah Virus, dangerous and little known, spreads in India

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A rare, brain-damaging virus that experts consider a possible epidemic threat has broken out in the state of Kerala, India, for the first time, infecting at least 18 people and killing 17 of them, according to the World Health Organization.

The Nipah virus naturally resides in fruit bats across South and Southeast Asia, and can spread to humans through contact with the animals’ bodily fluids. There is no vaccine and no cure.

The virus is listed by the W.H.O. as a high priority for research. Current treatment measures are insufficient, according to Dr. Stuart Nichol, the head of the viral special pathogens branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s a market failure for protecting people from this,” said Dr. Steve Luby, an epidemiologist at Stanford University. “It’s not like treating baldness or breast cancer, where wealthy people will pay for your product. There’s no big customer here, no incentive, until it escalates.”

If the virus were to spread outside India, it would likely appear first in Dubai, where many Indians work, according to an analysis of flight patterns conducted by the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research group.

Among United States airports, an infected traveler would likely arrive first at John F. Kennedy Airport.

“The goal of mapping scenarios out is not to create panic. It’s to get countries ready,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, the president of the alliance. “This virus will get better and better at spreading — that’s what we’re up against. We need to be ahead of the curve.”

The Nipah infection produces flulike symptoms, including fevers, body aches and vomiting, which often progress to acute respiratory syndrome and encephalitis, or brain inflammation. Some survivors show persistent neurological effects, including personality changes.

The virus was first identified during an outbreak in 1998 among pig farmers in Malaysia, where it killed over 100 people and led to the slaughtering of more than one million pigs. Cases now appear almost annually in Bangladesh.

The current outbreak likely began when people drew water from a bat-infested well, according to the India’s National Centre for Disease Control, which is leading the investigation.

The W.H.O. has not recommended any travel or trade restrictions for the region.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has announced an award of up to $25 million to Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions to develop a vaccine again Nipah virus. The project is expected to take at least five years.

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