The Film Star: Nipah Virus

Yes that is Matt Damon looming at you from above.

Although forming the basis of a Hollywood film about a pandemic is not usually a criterion taken into account, I reckon it should push the pandemic potential of a virus up a point or two. The virus in question is called Nipah, and  the way it exploded onto the scene in 1998 was deemed dramatic enough for Damon co-star Gwyneth Paltrow to freak out about on screen in the 2011 film Contagion.

This portrayal can’t be far from the real drama that unfolded in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other such groups at the time. The outbreak took place in Malaysia, where the virus was transmitted into pig farmers via their pigs, resulting in over 250 cases and 100 deaths.

These guys obviously didn’t rate the Bourne films

Authorities needed to respond quickly and in their panic they mistook the virus for the mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis. Valuable time and resources were spent defending against the wrong threat, which allowed the virus to gain a stronger foothold in Malaysia and spread into nearby Singapore.

The pigs developed a severe respiratory disease hilariously named ‘barking pig disease’ or ‘one mile cough’. However, although the names are humorous, the disease that the pigs spread to their farmers was far from amusing. It would begin with a mild fever and headache, but before long seizures would take hold as the virus caused inflammation of veins, arteries and brain. A third of survivors were left with crippling neurological disorders.

The turning point came when Nipah virus was isolated from the spinal fluid of an unfortunate victim, meaning resources could be diverted away from the inappropriate threat posed by Japanese Encephalitis. This is where – fortunately – the real-life events diverge from those seen in the film. Unlike the case of the fictional virus MEV-1, once Nipah had been identified, the outbreak was controlled within 2 months. Since then, the origin of the virus has been traced to fruit bats, who infected the pigs via urine, faeces and partially eaten fruit containing virus-laden saliva.

The guilty bats

“In our globally connected world, humanity could face its most devastating pandemic”

However since 1998, a Nipah outbreak has occurred every year in Bangladesh. These outbreaks have all been successfully contained, thanks mainly to the inability of the virus to spread efficiently between humans. But what are the chances that one day the virus could, like its on-screen counterpart MEV-1, cause a catastrophe of epic proportions? Some of the language used by real scientists would be at home in a film script, like Professor Stephen Luby of Stanford University, who claimed that if the virus adapts to become capable of more efficient human-human transmission then ‘humanity could face its most devastating pandemic.

As I hope you have gathered from previous posts on this blog, the ‘if’ in any sentence like ‘if the virus adapts to transmit more effectively between humans’ is a pretty major ‘if’.

However there are a number of factors that mean this virus should be watched more closely than a cinema-goer cowering over their popcorn watches Damon save the day:

  • Human-human transmission is frequently observed during the yearly outbreaks in Bangladesh and India
  • The high population density of South Asia would mean the infection would spread quickly
  • The virus has a very high mutation rate
  • Up to 70% of people infected die

In his aptly named paper ‘The pandemic potential of Nipah virus’ (always handy when you find a paper which addresses the issue so directly), our friend Stephen Luby claims that high-income countries need to give more support to low-income countries in the attempt to prevent the terrifying concept of sustained human-human transmission ever becoming a reality. This support would be manifested in improved surveillance, raising standards of healthcare and developing a vaccine to give to those at risk from the pesky bats.

Fortunately for us, the widespread annihilation caused by its on-screen double has not yet been witnessed in real life, but Nipah is most certainly a threat worth monitoring.

Pandemic potential = 7/10

Just as a final note, the fictional MEV-1 virus is not the only on-screen Contagion component to have a real-life counterpart: Jude Law plays a conspiracy theory-spouting blogger who whips the general public up into a frenzy about the outbreak of the virus. I can only hope that this blog hasn’t had a similar effect on you.

Picture credits

“Damon cropped” by nicolas genin from Paris, France – Cropped version of a picture posted on Flickr as 66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)]. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

“Pteropus vampyrus headshot” by Simon J. Tonge – Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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