At least 10 people have died in the Nipah virus outbreak in the southern Indian state of Kerala, doctors say.
Two others who have tested positive for the virus are critically ill. Some 40 people have been put into quarantine following the deaths.
The virus is hard to diagnose. Symptoms of infection include fever, vomiting and headaches.
Nipah has a mortality rate of 70% and there is no vaccine. It can be transmitted to humans from animals.
Nipah virus is also “top of the list” of 10 priority diseases that the World Health Organization has identified as a potential next major outbreak.
Authorities have ordered emergency measures to control the spread of the infection in Kozhikode, , previously known as Calicut, where the deaths have taken place.
Some 60 blood and body fluid samples of suspected cases have been sent for confirmation to the National Institute of Virology in the western city of Pune, officials said.
Among the dead are three members of one family. A nurse who treated them was among the victims, and is now being hailed as a hero by authorities and in social media.
Lini Puthussery, a mother of two, wrote a note for her husband in a hospital isolation unit saying: “I don’t think I will be able to see you again. Sorry. Please take care of our children.”
The letter is being widely shared on social media.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Sister Puthussery’s “selfless service will be remembered”.
Fruit bats are considered to be the natural host of the Nipah virus.
Health workers said they had found dead bats in a well of the family’s house in Kozhikode district and sealed off the well with fluorescent nets.
Health authorities across the state have been on alert, setting up medical camps and a control room to tackle the situation.
UV Jose, the senior-most official of Kozhikode, told the AFP news agency that all government and private hospitals were working in close co-ordination.
“Health staff are visiting individual households giving them specific instructions including about eating fruits from outside and other precautions,” he said.
Reports say the infection was first reported in India in 2001 and again six years later. Some 50 people were killed in the two outbreaks.
What is Nipah virus?
- Nipah virus (NiV) infection is a newly emerging disease which can be transmitted to humans from animals. The natural host of the virus are fruit bats
- The infection was first identified in 1999 during an outbreak of encephalitis and respiratory illness among pig farmers and people with close contact with pigs in Malaysia and Singapore
- Nearly 300 human cases with over 100 deaths were reported in that outbreak. In order to stop it, more than a million pigs were euthanized, causing tremendous trade loss for Malaysia
- Nipah virus infection can be prevented by avoiding exposure to sick pigs and bats in endemic areas and not drinking raw date palm sap
- Symptom of the infection include fever, headache, drowsiness, respiratory illness, disorientation and mental confusion. These signs and symptoms can progress to coma within 24-48 hours
- There is no vaccine for either humans or animals
(Source: WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)