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Breakthrough in Nipah virus research

15th March 2011

Scientists working in Bangladesh believe they may have made a breakthrough in treating Nipah virus, a relative newcomer in the world of viruses.


The virus was first discovered in 1999, and it kills most sufferers, leaving survivors scarred for life by neurological problems.

Stephen Luby, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that Nipah caused a striking degree of anxiety and panic, causing previously healthy young people to die.

There is currently not any kind of vaccine for Nipah virus, and until several years ago, scientists were uncertain how it was transmitted to humans.

In 2008, scientists noticed that bats were feeding on date palm sap, which Bangladeshis usually collect in the winter months as a treat, and successfully linked the disease to a route of transmission.

However, scientists are still not sure how Nipah moves between bats.

Many bats in Southeast Asia demonstrate Nipah antibodies, showing that they may be carrying the virus.

Luby said that there appeared to be something about the Ganges River in western Bangladesh at a particular time of year that put people at particular risk.

Mahmudur Rahman, director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, said he believed that people would be able to keep the Nipah disease under control.

In the past, people in Bangladesh used to use strips of bamboo to protect date palms from feeding fruit bats.

However, the practice was dropped at some point in the past.

Luby said that the strips kept the fruit bats out of the trees, leading to cleaner sap, which a team of scientists was able to verify using infrared cameras.

Rahman said that getting people to stop drinking raw date palm sap, a cherished Bangladeshi tradition, was the only answer to totally breaking the Nipah transmission cycle.

Scientists in Bangladesh are also collecting blood samples from as many animals as possible.

Some researchers believe that Nipah may come not just from bats, but from sickened animals as well.

Researchers also believe that Nipah can be spread by people who come into contact with pigs.

Nipah is named after a town in Malaysia, where cases of the virus first appeared in 1998.

At that time, many pig farmers in Malaysia began to get sick with high fevers and muscle spasms.

The Malaysian health authorities were convinced that the disease was Japanese encephalitis (JE), but researchers disagreed.

The infected pigs developed loud coughs, and piglets died, which led researchers to suspect that they may have been dealing with a new disease.

Many questions remain about the Nipah virus, and people hope that the virus will not mutate into a more transmissible form before scientists have a chance to develop a vaccine.


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