The Bat-Borne Virus That Threatens to Become the Next Pandemic

Image by shellac / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

For bioGraphic, editor-in-chief Steven Bedard joins a team of public health investigators studying the Nipah virus, a disease that has the potential to become the next pandemic. They track its movements to a local gachhi, a collector and seller of date palm sap, in a village in Bangladesh. Fruit bats in the region, which feast on cultivated crops like mangoes and figs because of a lack of food source in their native range, have also developed a taste for this fresh sap. Scientists think these bats have carried Nipah for a long time, but now — as these virus-harboring mammals are in closer contact with humans — the threat of an outbreak is real.

Nipah symptoms in humans are varied, from an initial fever, headache, vomiting, and a sore throat, and progress to more serious signs of encephalitis — dizziness, drowsiness, altered consciousness, neurological changes — and then coma and death. Drawing on the expertise of epidemiologists and ecologists, Bedard paints a picture of the emerging disease in an in-depth investigation.

While the man is not the villain I may have envisioned when we were searching for him—just an old man looking to make a few extra Taka by tapping the local trees—these health workers, and health officials around the world, know that the next outbreak could begin with him, or someone just like him. And although Nipah virus has killed fewer than 400 people since it was first identified 20 years ago, they also know that the pathogen’s persistence in the environment, its ability to change quickly, and its potential, under the right set of conditions, to spread like wildfire could enable the next outbreak, or the one after that, to become a pandemic. Many experts think that the right set of conditions might already be in place here and across a vast swath of western Bangladesh known as the “Nipah Belt.”

As we make our way back through the village, I can’t help retracing the steps I took to get here. It’s just a few kilometers and a very plausible route from this tiny village to a city center and onto a crowded bus through one of the most densely populated countries in the world, then on to the country’s capital of nearly 9 million, and possibly onto an international flight bound for another metropolis. It took me two days to travel that route in the other direction—well within the virus’s incubation period.

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