The unsung heroes at the helm of Kerala's battle against Nipah

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 09, 2018 15:11 hrs
Nipah virus

Doctors and patients wear safety masks as a precautionary measure after the Nipah virus outbreak at a medical college in Kozhikode.

The Nipah virus that is still on the minds of Indians had its epicenter in Calicut, Kerala. The virus has claimed the lives of at least a dozen people. The virus outbreak initially caused big concern among the public and health officials. The outbreak of this virus is not new. In 2001, India confirmed its first Nipah outbreak in Siliguri, West Bengal which resulted in 45 deaths. A second outbreak in Nadia district claimed the lives of 5 people.

Human to human transmission is a way for this virus to spread. The hospitals and health centres where treatment was being given to those who tested positive is a potentially harmful and dangerous place to work. Kerala Health Minister K K Shylaja Teacher praised the doctors and nurses who were quick to respond in handling the cases saying in part, “It's because of so many health officials, doctors, nurses and support staff, who tirelessly worked day and night, that we have been able to contain the outbreak so swiftly”.

The work of the healthcare professionals is extraordinary considering the virus hasn’t gone the way of SARS or other earlier epidemics. This is because the officials responded to the virus quickly and were effective in quarantining those who were affected. The virus as of now has been contained.

Doctors and nurses went above and beyond to make sure those were affected were given the best treatment. In one instance where a patient didn’t survive, the relatives were scared to claim the body and perform the last rites. However, Dr R S Gopakumar, Health Officer of Kozhikode Corporation took it upon himself to perform the duties saying in part, “I was saddened that during his last journey there was none of his dear ones to perform last rites…It was my duty”.

Health officials in Kerala announced that the virus could spread through fruits that were half-eaten by bats, people cut down on their fruit purchases. The diagnosis from the first patient on was swift. India does not have a good track record of outbreak investigations. India is obligated to report outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases to the World Health Organisation (WHO). K.P Aravindan, former professor at Government Medical College, Kozhikode, in a column for The Wire credits the officials is effective containing the virus from the beginning –

The way the potentially explosive epidemic was contained by the authorities in Kerala is praiseworthy, and has lessons for other states. The Kerala health system has not been found wanting when confronted by a potentially calamitous and deadly viral epidemic”.

When the first patient was under treatment, Kozhikode’s district medical officer, V. Jayashree had assembled a team and screened the patient’s home. Here they collected mosquito samples. The officials on the ground received instructions from those who were trained in protocols during the Ebola outbreak instructed the doctors to isolate patients, were surgical masks and decontaminating surfaces.

The authorities in Kerala were able to trace every single case reported thereafter to the first case or his contacts/carers. Early diagnosis meant that the people who had already contracted the infection were limited. On the flip side, many of those infected were from hospitals.

One such case is that of Nurse Lini Puthussery who died of a Nipah virus infection on May 21after treating one of the patients. In a letter that has since become public, she wrote a letter to her husband –

Sajeeshetta, am almost on the way. I don’t think I will be able to see you again. Sorry. Please take good care of our children. Poor Kunju [Sidharth], please take him to the Gulf with you. Don’t stay single like our father. Plz. With lots of love, Umma”.

Tributes poured in as the story of one brave nurse represented the work that various healthcare professionals were doing in treating patients who were affected with the Nipah virus. The government of Kerala announced monetary aid of Rs 20 lakh for her family. The WHO honored her along with two other women; Razan al-Najjar who was shot dead in Gaza by Israeli snipers and Salome Karwah who fought the Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia.

The Economist obituary described as her as ‘the conscientious nurse from Kerala’. It described her work schedule of flexible hours as a daily wage nurse who had two young sons. Her husband was in Bahrain working as an accountant for a small company.

She loved her work too much. She had filled a large black hard-bound book with neatly underlined entries in English, rather than her native Malayalam, on diseases and their treatments. In her spare time she was busy improving her knowledge, to be eligible for a permanent government nursing job”.

Her husband, who was shocked to hear about her death, said he was proud of her, “She died doing her duty, and when I hear people appreciate her commitment to her work, I feel proud of her. She did her duty without hesitating and showed 100% commitment to what she did”.

The fact that the virus hasn’t spread to a very large extent shines a light on the important and often life threatening work that doctors, nurses and medical professionals undertook. In this instance, they were treating patients who were infected with a virus which could be transmitted. Selfless work in the face of potential danger.

More columns by Varun Sukumar