The Mystery of the Nipah Virus

In 1999, the country of Malaysia had a medical mystery on its hands.  A disease was killing people in the village of Nipah.  Young men would be healthy one day, and the next day they could not walk or talk.  Their brains would swell up. The paralysis was so extreme with some victims that they were in the nightmarish situation of being fully conscious and awake but unable to move or speak.  Others became completely comatose. 

The mortality rate was comparable to Ebola; the Nipah disease was killing nearly half of those who contracted it. Almost one in every three families in the town had lost a family member, and the fear was that the disease would spread to large population centers such as Singapore.

The Malaysian government told people not to worry.  Claiming the disease was being spread by mosquitoes, the government said it had the situation well in hand, because it was spraying for mosquitoes. 

But neither Dr. Kaw Bing Chua, who was training in virology at the University of Malaya, nor his neurologist colleague, Dr. C.T. Tan believed the Nipah disease was being spread by mosquitoes. 

They did not believe it because there was one important clue that was inconsistent with that theory: No Muslims were getting sick.  Mosquitoes don't care what religion you practice, “so if the disease was coming from mosquitoes,” said Tan, “you would have Muslims, Hindus, and Christians all getting sick.”  But only Chinese Malaysians were catching the disease — and even more specifically, only Chinese farmers raising pigs.  “As you know, Muslims don't handle pigs,” Tan said.  So, clearly the disease was being spread by the pigs. 

Chua was trying to isolate the virus, but not getting any help from his superiors.  “I called my department head at his home,” recalls Chua, “and said, 'Prof, please come. I want to show you something’.”  Chua’s professor told him to throw away his experiments. 

But Chua persuaded his professor to send him to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado, where scientists study mosquito-borne illnesses, and where there was a microscope powerful enough to make viruses visible to the human eye. 

Dr. Chua wrapped up virus samples in special packaging, put them in his carry-on luggage (!), and hopped a plane to the United States.  “It was an emergency,” explained Dr. Chua, “I had to get the samples there very quickly.”

When he viewed his virus through the CDC microscope, Chua immediately recognized it as a paramyxo virus.  “The moment I saw the screen, I said 'Goodness! It's a paramyxo!'”  These viruses are associated with livestock, not mosquitoes, and they are airborne and can infect the lungs. Measles, one of the most contagious viruses on Earth, is caused by a type of paramyxovirus.

Chua grabbed the nearest telephone and called officials in Malaysia. “Stop fighting mosquitoes!” he told them. “It's coming from pigs.”  The Malaysian government not only listened, it employed its military in a huge animal slaughter in which almost a million pigs were destroyed.

According to witnesses, the scene was horrific: “The pigs were screaming, and you could see some tears on their faces,” reported one observer with Malaysia’s Department of Veterinary Services.  “It was pitiful.”

But the culling worked. The outbreak stopped dead in its tracks. 

A further decade of research revealed that the Malaysian pig population had been picking up the Nipah virus for years, probably from bats, but the outbreaks had been small.  In the 1990s, however, Malaysia began adopting Western, industrialized farming methods, concentrating large numbers of pigs together in a small area. 

“The way people grow their food has changed, and so has the way diseases spread,” says Tan. “Agricultural industrialization was part of what triggered the outbreak.”

The Nipah threat has not been extinguished.  Across Asia, there have been at least 16 outbreaks since 1999 — in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, and there are signs that the virus is becoming more dangerous. In the Malaysian outbreak, the fatality rate was about 40 percent, and the virus did not seem to be spreading directly from person to person.  In more recent outbreaks, Nipah has killed up to 70 percent of those infected, and it seems to be spreading not only from animals to people but also from person to person.

The Nipah Virus is only one of the more recent outbreaks of swine-related disease.  Many deadly diseases have taken their toll on mankind because humans eat unclean animals. The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people (between three and six percent of the world's population at that time), and has been called “the mother of all pandemics.” It is believed to have been caused by a near ancestor of the H1N1 flu virus, which originates in birds and then mutates in pig populations. Humans are at risk of infection when they handle pigs and pork.


How did Moses Know?

When the Torah was delivered to Israel some 3,500 years ago, pathogens and disease processes were not well understood.  The people of that time likely did not know what a virus was or how unclean animals spread viruses and bacteria.  But Scripture is not a product of human reason, nor is Scripture limited by the frontiers of human knowledge.  Scripture is divinely inspired; the prohibition on eating unclean animals is solid evidence of that.  God well knew what He was helping Israel to avoid when He warned them against unclean animals. 

There is nothing in the New Testament that changed the eating habits of unclean animals, nor rendered them free of diseases and pathogens.  We see Jesus agreeing with the evil spirits He was casting out that a herd of pigs was a fit habitation of demons.  Jesus’ action resulted in the culling of the pig population around Galilea. Mat. 8:28-32.  Does this not show Jesus’ attitude toward eating pork?

Today Muslims and Jews are known for avoiding pork but, sadly, Christians are not.  Muhammad assembled his new religion by drawing on other religions, including Judaism.  He was wise to include the prohibition on eating swine, and his followers benefit from that wisdom even today.  Ellen White tells us that the pig was never designed to be eaten, but avoiding it is especially important in warmer climates:

“God did not prohibit the Hebrews from eating swine's flesh merely to show His authority, but because it was not a proper article of food for man. It would fill the system with scrofula, and especially in that warm climate produced leprosy, and disease of various kinds. Its influence upon the system in that climate was far more injurious than in a colder climate. But God never designed the swine to be eaten under any circumstances.”  How to Live 1:58, 1865.

God understood what the climate was going to become in the Middle East, and knew that swine’s flesh would be especially disease-producing there.  Clearly, a greater than human wisdom inspired the Torah.


Will We Choose Health Over Sickness?

Pigs and other unclean animals spread many diseases, illnesses that could so easily be avoided simply by leaving these animals out of the human food chain. 

The issue goes beyond what our eating does to our own health, and concerns what we are causing others to be exposed to.  As the Nipah story illustrates, working around pigs can lead to heightened risk of disease.  We do not know how much pork the men of Nipah were eating, if any, but we know that they were working in close proximity to large concentrations of swine.  If you are working close to a disease-carrying swine, you can be infected with the diseases they carry.  This is why Scripture not only prohibits eating them, but commands that we should not even touch their dead bodies. (Lev. 11:8) If we eat pork, we are helping to create an industry in which workers are at higher risk of disease and death than they would otherwise be.  This is not ethical eating on our part.

God tells us that if we follow his instructions in this regard, we will be rewarded with health and the absence of disease:

“If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.” Ex. 15:26.

“But you shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water; and I will remove sickness from your midst.”  Ex. 23:25. 

“The LORD will remove from you all sickness; and He will not put on you any of the harmful diseases of Egypt which you have known, but He will lay them on all who hate you.”

“The Lord plainly told His people that every blessing would come to them if they would keep His commandments, and be a peculiar people. He warned them through Moses in the wilderness, specifying that health would be the reward of obedience.”  Ms 38, 1898.

Let’s follow the divine counsel, leave all unclean animals out of our diet, and enjoy the good health our loving Creator wants for us.