There’s a disease raging on the other side of the world: There’s no cure. There’s no vaccine. And it transfers fairly easily from human-to-human in close contact.
But it’s not the new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has sickened 55 and killed 28. It’s the Nipah virus outbreak that has already killed 16 of 18 people known to be infected in Kerala, India, closing schools and quarantining more than 2,500 people in their homes.
You may have never heard of the Nipah virus, but the World Health Organization has and it has identified it as one of several priority diseases that pose a public health risk because of their epidemic potential and because there are no, or insufficient, countermeasures.
In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to reduce or prevent infection in people is by raising awareness of the risk factors and educating people about the measures they can take to reduce exposure to the Nipah virus. Sometimes communication and surveillance are all we have to effectively respond in real time to contain emergency health threats. Creating this type of communication and enabling the communication vital to surveillance takes preparation and planning. We can’t afford to be caught flat-footed. We learned that during the Ebola crisis.
Nipah virus appears to be spread by a species of fruit bat found in several Asian and African nations. The saliva of the bat can get into date palm sap that people drink or it can infect pigs who later go on to infect people. It’s not currently an Ebola-sized threat – Ebola killed 11,000 people during the 2014-16 West African outbreak and it is being watched very closely in the DRC as it has been found recently in a city of 1.2 million compounding the threat – but we don’t know for certain that it won’t be. The same goes for a series of other viruses that the WHO is concerned about, including what they call Disease X, which it called “a serious international epidemic [that] could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. Diseases that can be spread between animals and people, like Nipah or Ebola, are known as zoonotic diseases.
Nipah is considered a newly emerging virus. Scientists first identified it during an outbreak in Malaysia in 20 years ago. It can be difficult to diagnose because initial symptoms are nonspecific. This can hinder accurate diagnosis and creates challenges in outbreak detection, effective and timely infection control measures and outbreak response activities. In most outbreaks, as many as 75 percent of infected people have died.
Before significant international assistance arrived in West Africa during the early days of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, for example, CCP and others engaged village chiefs, and community and religious leaders to provide accurate information they could share with their communities about the disease, stigma, prevention and treatment. Quickly created materials grounded in evidence were used to correct misinformation and rumors and provide credible up-to-the-minute facts. Before it was contained, the outbreak claimed thousands of lives, but many more were saved when people learned that to stay healthy they had to wash their hands, not handle the sick and take specific measures to bury the dead without spreading Ebola to others.
These experiences show the importance of being prepared to contain and prevent future outbreaks.
In the wake of the last Ebola crisis, USAID and other U.S, government agencies are now working with ministries of health, agriculture, environment and other key stakeholders around the world to make sure they have the resources and ability to respond to diseases of international concern. One key part of this effort is improving risk communication skills.
Under the USAID-funded Breakthrough ACTION project, CCP is supporting programs in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and DRC designed to increase the capacity of governments and stakeholders to effectively address high-risk behaviors associated with priority zoonotic disease and other emerging threats and lessen the impact of future public health events.
Whatever the next global pandemic, the job of public health experts is to keep millions from getting sick and economies from being crippled. Communication is one of most powerful tools we have.