On Tuesday morning, Viswanathan, in his 30s, was hard at work at his small shop near Soopikada cleaving long pieces of wood to be shaped into chairs, desks and cabinets. But every five minutes or so, his face, partially and loosely covered by a cotton handkerchief, would glance up to the top of a mahogany tree, standing a few feet away, where a few dozen bats hang upside-down.
“This is their centre. If you come after 6 in the evening, you will find hundreds of them on this tree,” he chuckled.
For years, Viswanathan never paid any attention to the bats or their constant squeaks. But now, he has a reason to be vigilant. The flying mammals, which hunt for food mostly in the night, are now suspected by health officials and government authorities to have sparked a major virus outbreak in northern Kerala, particularly in the region near Perambra in Kozhikode district.
Till Tuesday evening, a total of ten people had died with two others in critical condition in hospitals. The virus, known as Nipah, had first been reported in a village in Malaysia in the late 90s and had been known to have been transmitted by pigs. But over the years, similar outbreaks in Bangladesh and Nadia and Siliguri districts of West Bengal were thought to have been carried by bats.
“Never have they (the bats) caused us any problems, but now we are a bit afraid. But what do we do? My shop is right here and I can’t leave work and go,” he complains. “I went to the medical shop to buy a mask and the guy says the medical representative who was supposed to bring masks is too scared to come here. Entha cheyya (What to do!).”
It’s true that the fear is very much palpable and evident in the households and tiny, narrow lanes that dot the village panchayat of Changaroth, 45 kilometres from the city of Kozhikode. The fear is best symbolised by the empty, haunted look of the local taluk hospital where more than a hundred patients asked to be discharged fearing infection. The first victims of the outbreak were initially admitted here earlier this month.
One can also spot many men and women walking on the roads sporting loose cloth masks, strapped around the face, which are available at the taluk hospital for Rs 2. Whether these masks are even required to fight a virus, which anyway does not spread through air, is another matter. But it is clear that the virus is the main topic of conversation among the locals who are huddled together in small circles wondering how it ever, of all the places, came uninvited into their homes.
“It’s an unexpected tragedy that has befallen us,” says Aysha KK, the president of the Changaroth panchayat, where three of a family have fallen victim to Nipah virus.
“But I think the situation is peaceful now. We conducted extensive ward-level awareness meetings asking people to be very careful. The central team of doctors were here on Monday and they cleared most of the locals’ doubts. Another team from AIIMS, Delhi will visit today,” she added.
Indeed, the health department’s efforts and the intervention of the central team in quashing rumours come for high praise among the locals. “Adyam oru ashanka undayirunnu (Initially, there was a lot of anxiety),” says Moosa, 59, who lives near Soopikada.
“But the health department has done a fabulous job. Also, Dr Arun from Manipal in particular was very helpful in telling us about the virus and its consequences. Now, we are a bit relaxed,” he adds.
Source of Nipah virus suspected to be unused well inhabited by bats
Almost every local in the village contends that the viral outbreak’s source is an old well, situated two kilometres from Soopikada, in a compound that was bought by the family of Moosa Haji. The locals say that after the family bought the land, Haji’s two sons, Muhammad Salih (26) and Muhammad Sabith (23), had gone on to clean the well.
“It was lying unused for a long time. Apparently there were some bats inside or bat faeces in the water in the well. It’s not clear whether they drank the water or just cleaned it. But it’s being suspected that the infection started there,” said Prasanth Paloli, who works in a stone quarry.
Health Minister KK Shailaja and the central team from National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) have confirmed that they have indeed covered the well and even captured a fruit bat from inside to send for further testing. But they still haven’t substantiated whether the viral outbreak began with bats.
The first death in the outbreak is suspected to be of Muhammad Sabith, who passed away on May 5. While his blood samples were never sent for testing assuming his death could have been a case of encephalitis, it was the death of his elder brother, Salih, ten days later after showing similar symptoms that alerted the authorities. A few days later, the third death in the family occurred when Mariyam, the paternal aunt of the brothers, died of similar symptoms. Both the blood samples of Salih and Mariyam came back positive from the National Institute of Virology in Pune confirming Nipah virus.
Authorities now suspect that all those who have succumbed to the viral infection could have been in direct contact with any of the three members of the family. When approached, Moydeen Haji, Mariyam’s husband, refused to talk.
WhatsApp rumours have hurt us the most, say locals
“What do you do when you get a fake news on WhatsApp claiming 100 people have died here in our village? They are trying to create panic here,” a local said.
The rumours on social media, especially WhatsApp, have been a major impediment to the process of awareness and dissemination of information in the area, both locals and authorities agree. Some deaths in the area, which have no connection whatsoever to the virus, get attributed to the outbreak and subsequently end up being hyped up among the local population.
“Some news channels with vested interests pick this up and play it again and again. Yes, it’s a serious situation and we have to be careful. But it’s nothing on the scale that it’s being hyped up as,” said Moosa, who had worked in the Gulf for a long time before settling down here.
“People are calling us from the Gulf asking if it’s safe to come here. They are cancelling their vacations,” he added.
In fact, at a press conference on Monday, the health minister made it a point to tell the locals, especially around Perambra not to believe what they read on WhatsApp. “Only believe what the official channels of the government are telling you,” she said.
The initial panic even provoked a few people, about a dozen families, to abandon their homes for some time, shifting their wives and kids to homes of their relatives. But many of them are returning, locals say.
“Yes, there is a viral outbreak but we have to be brave about it. Many of these families have left their cattle and poultry behind. Who will feed them? So they have to come back and we have to fight this together,” said Retd Major Kunhiraman, a native of Changaroth.