In the southern Indian state of Kerala, Dr. Chandni Sajeevan, the head of emergency medicine at the Kozhikode Government Medical College hospital, led the response to an outbreak of Nipah, a virus carried by fruit bats, in 2018. Seventeen of the 18 people infected they died, including a young trainee nurse who cared for the first victims.
“It was a very frightening thing,” said Dr. Chandni said. Hospital staff were given a crash course in intensive infection control, donning the “moon suits” that seemed so outlandish in the pre-Covid era. The nurses were heartbroken by the loss of their colleague.
Three years later, in 2021, Dr. Chandni and her team were relieved when the bat breeding season passed without infection. And then in May, in the midst of India’s terrible Covid wave, a 12-year-old boy with a high fever was brought to a clinic by his parents. That clinic was full, so they sent him to the next one, and then to a third one, where he tested negative for Covid.
But an alert doctor noticed that the boy had developed encephalitis. He sent a sample to the national virology laboratory. It was quickly confirmed to be a new case of Nipah virus. By then, the child could have exposed several hundred people, including dozens of healthcare workers.
The system Dr. Chandni and her colleagues had jumped into action after the 2018 outbreak: isolation centers, moon suits, testing anyone with a fever for Nipah and Covid. He held daily news conferences to quell rumors and keep the public on the lookout for people who might be sick, and away from the bats and their droppings, which encroach on the coconut trees where children play. Teams were sent to catch bats for surveillance. Everyone who had been exposed to the sick child was quarantined for 21 days.
“Everyone, ambulance drivers, lift operators, security guards, this time knew about Nipah and how they should behave so as not to spread it,” he said.