Nipah virus: deadly H5N1 strain has spread from Sri Lanka to five countries

It is now believed that infectious strains of Nipah virus that broke out in Sri Lanka last week have spread from that country to at least five other countries.

If the true picture is confirmed, the new H5N1 variant poses the greatest threat to human health since the pandemic of 2002-03, when hundreds of people in Asia died. Health officials at the World Health Organisation are “gravely concerned”.

The virus, caused by a new strain of the dengue virus, was first seen in 2007 and has spread from the Philippines to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. But disease specialists believe it has taken a sinister twist.

“We have this newer variant of Nipah virus, and this new variant has the capacity to become transmissible between humans,” said Maria Cristina Cirigliano, deputy director of the WHO epidemic response cluster. “There is so much uncertainty still and it is still just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sri Lanka is holding a high-level meeting this week to address the infection, which began more than a week ago in the low-lying southern-coast town of Kopuniya.

Sri Lanka’s Mavil A, which sits on the southern coast of the island nation, had warned of ‘an outbreak of disease’ in the village in early December

An announcement last Wednesday on the official Facebook page of the Department of Health warned of “an outbreak of disease” in the village of Mavil A. The village overlooks the popular tourist resort of Vella Pethapissa and neighbouring coastal villages.

The WHO report comes on the day that Sri Lanka starts an anti-dengue campaign and officials have already begun bringing in anti-viral medicines. The viral infection, which has proven a stubborn killer in recent years, often causes death by severe dehydration.

“In Thailand and Sri Lanka they are taking preventive measures, but the difficulty is that the virus is not isolated,” said the WHO’s Chejidor Merian. “It is everywhere in Vella Pethapissa.”

Health officials in Sri Lanka believe that the new Nipah variant – which has a stronger strain of influenza virus known as H5N1 – is a result of an improvement in its genetic coding.

Previously, there were two types of the virus, one that caused sporadic cases of febrile illness and another that caused microcephaly in babies.

“This new variant has the capacity to become transmissible between humans,” said the WHO’s Santamay Enntividade. “But we do not know the fact.”

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