A2 Microbes in the News

A Taste For Pork Helped A Deadly Virus Jump To Humans



In 1999, in a small town in Malaysia, a scientist named Dr. Kaw  Bing Chua made a discovery crucial for the restructuring of the agriculture and farming industry across Malaysia (as well as Singapore, the Philippines, and several other countries). Chua discovered the virus later to known by the name of Nipah. Chua, a grad student studying virology at the time pinpointed this virus as one spreading across the country, yet no one at the time believed it.  Over the course of the next year a disease more deadly than Ebola was spreading rapidly throughout the town of Nipah, Malaysia. It eventually caught the attention of the government, and since most common viruses were spread through mosquitoes, the government treated it that way. However, after months of efforts to decrease the rate of spreading, nothing was working. This is when Chua comes back into the story. Chua was adamant that the virus in question was not in fact spread through mosquitoes, but actually through pigs. He came to this conclusion when he observed that the only demographic of people not getting the disease were Muslim, and hence were not eating pigs. Chua connected with a lab in Fort Collins, Colorado where he was able to see the virus through a special camera at their lab. The virus was identified and confirmed to be one that spreads through livestock. This led to the researchers at the CO facility contacting the Malaysian government,  who then immediately switched procedures and began focusing on stopping the spread between pigs and pigs to people.

This relates strongly to what we’ve been discussing most recently in class.  Learning how a disease spreads is critical for studying how to stop or slow it. Once the Malaysian government realized that Chua’s observations were correct, they changed policies throughout their nation. The entire farming industry was turned over and reshaped in order to minimize the spread of infectious diseases, such as the deadly Nipah virus. It really struck me in this article that the key to reducing outbreaks is to start by preventing them in the first place. The article elaborates on how serious a threat diseases like measles pose for humans. Nipah, like measles, is a respiratory virus. It spreads through close proximity, like when the pigs lived in extremely close quarters, but it also can spread just through the air. This is why taking advantage of any available immunizations is key to reducing outbreaks of potentially deadly pathogens. One question that stuck with me after reading this article was how specifically is this virus adapting to its conditions? The first outbreaks of Nipah were only due to pig to human transfers, but as of late, the virus spreads from human to human.



3 Comments for “A2 Microbes in the News”



Well, I’m certainly glad I don’t eat pigs! This is a fascinating case study, and I’m so glad you shared it – this really illustrates the importance of close observation and creative thinking when studying natural phenomena. I agree that the best way to reduce deadly outbreaks of disease is to try to understand and prevent their origination, but how best should we do that? I wish the article had gone into a bit more depth on preventative measures that have been taken in the wake of the Nipah outbreak.

I don’t know exactly how this virus is adapting to conditions within human hosts, but I do know that livestock-derived viruses (swine flu, bird flu, etc.) mutate rapidly through reassortment in human hosts and can very quickly become contagious. As such, some researchers suggest including livestock handlers in prevention planning – see here: https://academic.oup.com/ps/article-lookup/doi/10.3382/ps.2008-00335



This was really interesting for me to read, as I myself do not eat pork.
Besides that, I also took epidemiology, and so it’s interesting to see the spread of disease being combated in such a roundabout way. Through the course in epidemiology, I certainly agree 100% that the adage,”an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” holds true across all diseases.
It’s interesting to see the change in the disease over time as well. It makes me think of the movie Contagion (which did a really good job looking at outbreaks, at least in terms of movies), and how the virus was changed and spread from different species. In the movie, the big outbreak was all due to a virus that was some bat-swine hybrid virus that then infected a human and was able to continue infecting people (also an air-borne pathogen).



I forgot to mention that the Contagion was actually based off this virus and how it spread!