At least three people have died on Monday due to infection caused by the Nipah virus in Kerala. Three more are suspected to have succumbed to the ailment. As many as nine people suspected of carrying the virus have been admitted to hospital.

Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja said her department was taking all precautions to control the infection, The News Minute reported. Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare JP Nadda had said on Sunday that the Centre had asked the National Centre for Disease Control to assist the state government in taking required measures.

The virus is spreading through direct contact or through body fluids, Shailaja said.

There is no Nipah vaccine for either humans or animals at the moment, according to theWorld Health Organization. Virology experts from Manipal and Apollo hospitals have collected blood samples of those believed to be affected. All samples are being sent to Manipal Centre for Virus Research and the National Institute of Virology for testing.

Earlier, the Director of Health Service in Kerala, Dr RL Sarita, told reporters that the cause of the deaths was a “rare virus”. “We need to ascertain which type of virus caused the deaths,” she said, according to PTI. “Many viruses are zoonotic [a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people] types and some can be transmitted through bats.”

Two brothers in their mid-twenties died of the disease on May 5 and May 18, followed by their aunt on May 19. The wife of one of the brothers, and their father are in hospital. A nurse at the Perambra Taluk Hospital in Kozhikode district, who treated the three Nipah-confirmed patients, died in the early hours of Monday at the Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode.

The health department has opened an isolation ward in Kozhikode Medical College and Hospital for the eight people who are in a critical condition and 25 more who are under observation. The state has formed a task force headed by Kozhikode District Collector UV Jose, and has recalled all doctors and paramedical staff on or going on leave. It is also seeking help from private hospitals.

What is Nipah?

The World Health Organization calls Nipah a “newly emerging zoonosis”, which is a disease that can be transferred from animals to humans. It causes fever and cold-like symptoms in its patients that quickly advances to encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain, and myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart. Because its symptoms are similar to Japanese encephalitis, it has in the past been mistaken for that disease, though it affects those have been vaccinated against JE. Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for Nipah infections and treatment is restricted to intensive supportive care of patients till the symptoms subside. Those infected initially have a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms.

The first Nipah outbreak was in Malaysia in 1999. There have been other outbreaks in Bangladesh (in 2001, 2003 and 2007) and India (2001 and 2007). “It is highly pathogenic to humans, with high case fatality rate, ranging from 40 to 75%”, says the WHO.