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Nipah virus curtails festivities in Indian state

Deadly infection in Kerala has killed 16, cancelled weddings, ruined Ramadan family reunions and hit businesses hard

Rita Joseph, Kozhikode

Rita Joseph, Kozhikode

Updated: June 18, 2018 10:38 AM GMT
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Nipah virus curtails festivities in Indian state

Officials place a fruit bat into a container after catching it inside a well in Kozhikode in Kerala, where the deadly Nipah virus had claimed 16 lives by June 6. (Photo by AFP)

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Wedding bells were set to ring for Ethan Anthony this month. The guest list was ready and invitation cards were printed. But an outbreak of the deadly Nipah virus in Kerala ruined his plans. 

The outbreak in the southern Indian state had claimed 16 lives by June 6 over only one month, forcing several countries to issue travel advisories against visiting the affected northern area of Kerala.

Anthony, a migrant worker in Bahrain, was planning to return home with friends during Ramadan, a season of homecoming for thousands of Kerala people working in the petro-rich Persian Gulf countries. 

The advisory from Bahrain and other Gulf nations not to visit Anthony's home district of Kozhikode and neighboring areas spoiled the family reunion plans of thousands. Kerala's northern districts house most of the estimated 1.5 million people from the state working in the Gulf region. 

The state government has banned public gatherings as a precaution. But the fear of infection has caused unprecedented panic, throwing normal life out of gear. Fear is palpable because the virus has a high mortality rate of 70 percent.  

Fast-breaking Ramadan parties are cancelled, weddings are postponed and educational institutes have delayed reopening after the April-May summer vacation.

Housewife Jameela Mohammed, who was awaiting her son's return from the United Arab Emirates after two years away, will have to wait longer. "Also, with no Iftar parties, we are not getting a feel of the festival," she said.

The first Nipah victim was Mohammed Sabith from Perambra town in Kozhikode district. The town was the epicenter of the virus and suffered most casualties.

Sabith's older brother, father and an aunt all fell prey to the disease, characterized by fever, respiratory problems and inflammation of the brain. It has no known cure or vaccine. 

Nearly 2,000 people who had any contact with infected persons have been quarantined in their houses and are under surveillance by health authorities.

Kozhikode's chief administrative officer U.V. Jose told ucanews.com that restrictions will continue until the virus is contained.   

Church life affected

Catholic churches in the area have asked people to avoid holding functions like marriages, baptisms, retreats and Small Christian Community meetings. Catechism classes also have been suspended and oral reception of Holy Communion stopped. 

"These measures are put in place as part of our collective social responsibility at the time of this health crisis," said Father Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, chancellor and spokesman of Thamarassery Diocese. The Eastern rite diocese does not advocate a blanket ban on church activities, he said.  

The Latin rite Diocese of Calicut (former name of Kozhikode) has asked parish priests to exercise their discretion, said Father Paul Percy D'Silva, diocesan procurator.

Streets are sparsely populated in the entire Malabar area in northern Kerala. Churches, temples, malls and markets are deserted. The general public, taxi drivers and fruit and vegetable sellers are all wearing masks and gloves.

"The roads resemble a huge operation theater with almost everyone in masks and protective gear," said college student Rohit Nair.

Perambra is suffering isolation. Ever since 31-year-old nurse Lini Puthussery, a mother of two toddlers, succumbed to the disease after treating first victim Sabith at the local government hospital, people have been ostracizing nurses and other hospital staff. 

Buses and private transport refuse to ferry people in hospital uniforms. Private bus operators have stopped making trips to Perambra as people are avoiding the town like the plague. Many residents have fled.

Business down

Manoj Diwakar, general manager, of Focus Mall in Kozhikode city, admitted a fall in business. "We used to get a good crowd with footfalls upwards of 14,000 per month, but that has dropped to 11,000."

Fruits like mangoes and bananas sold on the streets have no takers and prices have plummeted by 50 percent or more after experts said fruit bats were carrying the Nipah virus.

People are not ready to risk consuming these fruits, said supplier Guna Ramachandran. He said exporters to West Asia are facing huge losses as countries such as Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have banned fruits and vegetables from Kerala.

The state is reportedly suffering a loss of 9 million rupees (US$140,000) in daily revenue.

The state's tourism industry, a mainstay of the economy, has also been badly hit with cancellations following travel ban advisories by Gulf nations, said Johny George, a member of the Tourism Advisory Committee.

"It is an unprecedented scenario ... never in living memory have I known such a situation," said septuagenarian Aleyamma Thomas.

However, physician A.S. Anoop Kumar, who played a major role in the early detection of the pathogen, sounded an optimistic note, saying the infection would soon be contained as the breeding season (December-May) of the fruit bats comes to an end.  

"Normalcy will return in a week or so," he said.

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