In the southern Indian state of Kerala, Dr Chandni Sajeevan, head of emergency medicine at Kozhikode Government Medical College Hospital, led the response to an outbreak of Nipah, a virus carried by fruit bats, in 2018. Seventeen of the 18 people infected died, including a young trainee nurse who treated the first victims.
“It was a very scary thing,” Dr Chandni said. Hospital staff have been given a crash course in intensive infection control, dressing in the “moon suits” that seemed so alien to the pre-Covid era. The nurses were devastated by the loss of their colleague.
Three years later, in 2021, Dr. Chandni and his team were relieved when the bat breeding season passed without infection. And then, in May, in the depths of India’s terrible Covid wave, a 12-year-old boy with a high fever was brought to a clinic by his parents. This clinic was full, so he was sent to the next one, then to a third, where he tested negative for Covid.
But an alert clinician noticed the child had developed encephalitis. He sent a sample to the national virology laboratory. He quickly confirmed that it was a new case of Nipah virus. By then, the child could have exposed several hundred people, including dozens of health workers.
The system that Dr Chandni and his colleagues had in place after the 2018 outbreak kicked into high gear: isolation centers, moonsuits, testing anyone with a fever for Nipah as well as Covid. She held daily press briefings to quell rumors and keep the public on the lookout for people who might be sick – and away from bats and their droppings, which litter the coconut groves where children play. Teams have been dispatched to catch bats for monitoring purposes. Everyone who had been exposed to the sick boy was quarantined for 21 days.
“Everyone, ambulance drivers, elevator operators, security guards – this time they knew about Nipah and how to behave not to spread it,” she said.
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