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Bats spotted at farmland owned by index case of outbreak, say officials

Kochi: The 47-year-old who died on August 30, considered the index case in the current Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, owned farmland near his home in Maruthonkara panchayat filled with areca nut trees and banana plants where bats are mostly seen, locals and health officials said, offering clues to the cause of the Nipah outbreak in Kozhikode district. However, the exact reason for how the index case got the virus would be known only after the central team finishes its investigation.

Health workers wearing protective gear shift people who have been in contact with a person infected with the Nipah virus to an isolation centre at a goverment hospital in Kozikode. (AFP)

Fruit bats are considered the natural carriers of the Nipah virus which spreads through contact with body fluids of infected animals. The Bangladeshi strain of the Nipah virus can enable animal-human and human-human transmission, health officials have said.

A team of health officials on Thursday collected samples of bat urine, animal droppings and half-eaten fruit from the plantation owned by the 47-year-old victim as well as from nearby areas. The victim’s home is also not far away from the 300-acre forest known as Janakikadu, an eco-tourist centre, which is home to different varieties of bats. In fact, samples of bat excretions taken from this area had confirmed the presence of Nipah virus in 2018, when the first outbreak had killed 17 people.

“The 47-year-old who died due to Nipah used to run a shop in a Gulf country and returned to Kerala around one-and-a-half years ago after his father fell ill. Since then, he was engaged in farming and had family-owned plantations which had areca nut, banana and other fruit trees. The farm land is about 100 metres from his home and bats are always seen hanging from trees there,” said Sameera Basheer, the local ward member.

A senior health official, who did not want to be named, said the victim may have touched an areca nut on the ground which had the bat’s secretions. “Bats in that area were examined. Their saliva and blood samples will be collected,” he said, adding that the exact reason would be known only after the sample test results come.

Shoba, the panchayat vice-president, said bats are all over the panchayat and neighbouring ones and are known to bite fruits such as guava. “In my own garden, I have seen half-eaten guava on the ground. Of course, we don’t touch it. Until the day Nipah arrived, we used to pluck from the trees, wash and eat it. Now we are scared,” she said.

Many fruit growers in the area are in a misery over the Nipah outbreak which has strengthened fears about fruits being bitten by bats.

Meanwhile, the health department late on Wednesday published the ‘route maps’ of the two victims including details of the places they visited since they began experiencing symptoms.

As per the route map of the 47-year-old, he began experiencing symptoms on August 22. On 23rd, he attended a family function and visited a bank on the 25th. The same day, he offered prayers at a nearby mosque. He visited two different clinics before dying at a private hospital on Aug 30.

“When he died, it was known to be a natural death. There were no fears of Nipah. A lot of people had attended his funeral because he was just 47. All those people are now on the contact list, but most of them have no symptoms,” said Shoba.

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