In her report, anthropologist Bersilla George details how Sabith contracted the Nipah virus.

How Sabith contracted Nipah virus Kerala anthropologist traces first victims lifeWikimedia Commons
news Nipah virus Thursday, October 04, 2018 - 14:16

A study carried out by anthropologist Bersilla George reveals that Mohammed Sabith, the first patient to fatally contract the dreaded Nipah virus in Kerala, had indeed consumed a fruit bitten by virus-carrying fruit bats. Her report, titled “Nipah: What Sabith has to say!”, uncovers how and where Sabith contracted the virus. Bersilla’s research was reportedly underway even before scientists found any evidence of Nipah-carrying fruit bats in Perambra town. The research is conducted by the National Institute of Epidemiology on behalf of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

Being an anthropological study of the first Nipah patient, her research was aimed at obtaining a total ethnographic picture of Sabith, including his habits, lifestyle and history. She was certain that she would be able to obtain the answers, as to how and where Sabith contracted the virus, in this way.

When she began her study, scientists and researchers did suspect that the virus came from fruit bats, but there was no concrete evidence to prove this. There were also rumours flying thick and fast that the virus had come from other sources, or that Sabith had contracted from other means, for instance, during his trip to Malaysia, which had seen a Nipah outbreak in one village, to Bangladesh or to the Middle East.

Understanding Sabith’s lifestyle, food habits

“Perambra’s speciality is that it is full of trees. There are all kinds of fruit trees surrounding Sabith’s house, like guava trees, mango trees, jackfruit trees and many others. Sabith really loved sweets. He used to work in many shops, including a juice shop, and would often make milkshakes and juices from the fruits he would find lying around. Fruit-eating bats also eat only the sweetest of fruits. He would pluck and eat unripened fruits and pick up fruits from his workplace and friends houses too. From my interviews, I was able to deduce that Sabith had indeed eaten fruits bitten by bats on the day and the time that would result in him exhibiting symptoms,” Bersilla explains.

Sabith was resting at home for about a month before he passed away, as he had met with an accident. “He had eaten a lot of fruits at the time too, which he had shared with his friends as well. But to his bad luck, perhaps it was only the fruits or the part of the fruit that Sabith had eaten that had carried the virus. He had poor health and his body was weak as he was an ulcer patient and was undergoing treatment,” she adds.

At the Calicut Medical College, where Sabith was admitted, it was found that he had died of neurological damage, which his family found a bit out of the ordinary, given that ulcers do not generally result in such symptoms. “But exactly 12 days later, when Sabith’s healthy elder brother also exhibited the same symptoms and died two days later, doctors and the family realised something was gravely wrong,” says Bersilla.

Widely loved by his cousins and friends, Sabith had also played and interacted closely with several of his family members and friends in the days immediately after he contracted the virus. None of these individuals contracted Nipah from him then, as the virus is only contagious once it reaches its peak and victims start exhibiting serious symptoms.

“The virus stays hidden for about five to 10 days after infecting the host. Nipah spreads only 12, 14 or 18 days after the infection. It is only in the last three or four days before the death, when symptoms such as a headache, cough, vomiting and coma are exhibited, that the Nipah virus spreads from one patient to other people,” she explains.

“Sabith used to keep rabbits as pets and spent a lot of time outdoors. The virus could also have spread from the urine of fruit-eating bats found on banana leaves, which he used to feed to the rabbits, or from any leaves he may have touched. The virus cannot survive without a host for more than three to four hours, even a fruit bitten by such a bat would not carry the virus for more than four hours,” she adds.

Bersilla stresses that the purpose of her research was not just to track the origin of the virus in the recent Nipah outbreak, but also to bust many of the misconceptions and false news around Nipah and Sabith himself, which was, at the time, even being aired on the news and talk shows.

Her ethnographic study, aptly titled “What Sabith has to say”, does indeed tell the story of the contraction of the Nipah virus in Kerala from the point of view of Sabith’s life as a real person, and goes some way in off-setting the cruel treatment meted out to his family and his memory by those blaming him for the outbreak.

Gleaning information from Sabith’s family, doctors

Given that he had already died before the study began, Bersilla’s study was an extensive qualitative study based on information gleaned from interviews with his two remaining family members (his mother and brother), his friends and the doctors who had treated him.

Her research spanned over seven days and had to be undertaken with great care and consideration, given the sensitivity of the subject and the particularities of the deeply conservative area he came from. At the time of her research, the village of Perambra was also largely deserted by the local population fearing the virus, which required Bersilla to travel to various different places to track them down.

“But when they saw me enter and leave Sabith’s house, and heard about my research, the people also began to feel like it was safe to return.”

Sabith’s remaining family members too had to be approached with caution given the enormity of their loss. “When I spoke to them, they were depressed and it was strange speaking to his family. The area is also deeply conservative, and my research was undertaken when they were fasting during Ramadan. Many of the male doctors were reluctant to speak to a female researcher alone at the time,” she recounts.

Her study revealed many facts pertinent to the contraction and spread of the Nipah virus and also paints an empathetic and kind portrait of the 26-year-old young man that Sabith was.

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