Nipah virus: No need to panic, says ex-DOH chief

By: Dona Z. Pazzibungan, Julie M. Aurelio - Philippine Daily Inquirer | September 26,2023 - 10:00 AM

Nipah in Philippines

Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin. INQUIRER file photo / LYN RILLON

There is no need for people to panic over the Nipah virus, which has caused an outbreak in India and killed two people so far.

This was what House Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Janette Garin, a former health secretary, said on Monday, September 25, 2023, while urging the government to keep the public updated about the virus and its symptoms without causing alarm.

“There should be actual and reliable information given to the public without being alarmist,” said Garin, who was a health undersecretary when the country reported its first Nipah virus case in 2014.

“We should not scare people but they should know the truth and what is happening,” Garin added.

In a statement on Friday, the Department of Health (DOH) reported that no new cases of Henipavirus infection have been reported since 2014. 

Nipah in the Philippines

The Nipah virus belongs to the genus Henipavirus.

“To date, there is only one recorded case of Henipavirus infection in the country. The case was detected in Sultan Kudarat in [April] 2014,” it said. 

During the DOH’s field investigation, 17 other suspected cases were detected. Eight had fully recovered while the other nine died.

“Based on the investigation, reported cases developed signs and symptoms after exposure to horses and/or its meat,” the DOH said, adding that among the victims’ symptoms were fever, headache with changes in sensorium (parts of the brain or mind concerned with reception and interpretation of sensory stimuli), cough and breathing difficulty.

According to the DOH, it has established a surveillance system to monitor additional cases “but to date, no similar health events or suspect cases have been detected.”

How to stop spread 

In a statement, Garin said that in the 2014 case, the virus was transmitted from fruit bats to horses and then to humans because the horse feed was contaminated with bat urine and secretions.

“We should ensure that viruses transmitted to animals or humans should have no human-to-human transmission. Persistent fever, especially if accompanied by moderate to severe headache, are red flags,” she added.

Garin called on the public to practice “life-saving proper hygiene” such as frequent handwashing and washing fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking these.

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She also urged the DOH and the Department of Agriculture to work together to monitor for possible cases.

“This overemphasizes the need to prioritize surveillance centers in each DOH regional hospital immediately. [A] little investment in office and experts can go a long way,” Garin said.

On Aug. 30, an infected person died in Kerala, India, followed by another death a few days later. Two others from the same family, including a child, were also infected and hospitalized, prompting authorities to close several schools and offices and declare more than seven villages as containment zones.

Nipah virus history, background

The Nipah virus was first identified in 1999 during an outbreak among pig farmers in Malaysia and Singapore that killed over 100 people and infected nearly 300 more.

The virus can spread to humans through direct contact with bodily fluids of infected bats, pigs or other people as some documented cases showed human-to-human transmission. The fatality rate is between 72 and 86 percent.

Based on data from the World Health Organization, more than 600 cases of Nipah virus were reported between 1998 and 2015. Infected persons initially develop symptoms that include fever, respiratory distress, headaches and vomiting. Encephalitis and seizures can also occur in severe cases, leaving victims in a coma.

There are currently no vaccines to prevent or cure the infection and the usual treatment is to provide supportive care.


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