Consuming raw date juice is prohibited but drinking boiled date juice is risk-free
Satkhira's health department has taken no measures to raise awareness against the deadly Nipah virus that spreads, in winter, through the consumption of raw date sap. The virus has no vaccine or cure and, in most cases, causes death.
Many of the collectors are unaware of the dangers posed by the sap, and the general public also lacks information about this virus. Thus, date sap collectors are actively gathering the liquid from trees and the residents of rural areas are drinking the juice.
Professor Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora, director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (Iedcr), published a report on 18 November, 2019, about the Nipah virus. The report reads that around 313 people were affected with Nipah virus between 2001-2019 in Bangladesh, and 217 of them died. It added that five of the eight people infected by the virus in 2019 succumbed to the illness.
Abdul Quader, 38 – a date sap collector of Shibpur village under Satkhira Sadar upazila – has been collecting and selling date juice for the past 16 years. He also produces date molasses and sells it at the local market. He earns around Tk40,000-Tk45,000 in the winter season, however, is unaware about how Nipah virus is transmitted.
"I collect date juice from trees in the winter season. This year, I collected juice from 70-to-80 date trees. Bats and birds are in contact with the juice at night, and I sell that juice, but I am unaware of the Nipah virus," he said.
Aby Sayeed Sarder, of the same village, said, "We drink raw date sap every day. Not only me, everyone of the area drinks the same juice. In the evening, the collectors sell the juice at the local markets and we buy it from them."
When told how the virus is transmitted, he said, "I was unaware of this, but I will be careful next time that I drink date sap."
Abu Bakkar, from Shibpur village under Tala Sadar upazila, also earns his living from the sap and said, "I have collected sap from 30 trees this year. At noon I hang the mud pots on the trees to collect the juice, and I collect the pots to sell them in the evening. I can sell a pot for Tk100 to 120."
"Molasses is produced by burning the sap, and that is sold at Tk80 – 100 per kilogramme. However, nobody shared with me that raw date sap spreads Nipah virus," added Bakkar.
Rubel Mollah, a businessman of the same locality said he has not seen any warning or campaign from the local health department about the matter.
Medical officer of Satkhira Medical College Hospital Dr Kazi Arif said they have sent the samples of five patients – who are suspected of being infected with the virus – to the Iedcr, as they do not have any facilities to diagnose the virus.
However, Dr A S M Alamgir, chief scientific officer of the Iedcr told The Business Standard that they did not receive any samples from Satkhira.
"Some samples of the relatives of a woman affected with Nipah virus arrived at the Iedcr, for us to check if they are at risk of Nipah transmission. The woman is currently receiving treatment at Khulna Medical College Hospital," said Alamgir.
Hasanur Rahman is a staff member of the Iedcr and field research assistant of Satkhira. He is experienced in virus research as he has researched around 10 – 12 viruses.
"I do not have the exact information about how many people were infected with Nipah virus this year or last year. After collecting samples, we send them to the Dhaka office but we do not get the analysis results. Therefore, we do not have the information," said Hasanur.
Stating that the health department is aware of how the Nipah virus spreads, Satkhira Civil Surgeon Dr Hissain Safayet said this is a contagious disease and once infected, it can claim a person's life.
"The disease spreads in winter in the rural areas, and it is primarily transmitted through raw date sap. So, consuming raw date sap is prohibited – but you can consume boiled date juice," he said.
Dr A S M Alamgir, chief scientific officer of the Iedcr recommended everyone refrain consuming raw date juice in winter.
"Most of the Nipah virus patients in the country drank raw date juice. The raw date juices contains bat saliva and urine," said Alamgir.
So, he also advised socio-cultural organisations to refrain organising date juice festivals.