Lassa fever: the rise of another Ebola outbreak in Nigeria?

Barely six days into the new year, there is a fresh outbreak of another hemorrhagic fever known as Lassa fever in some parts of the country specifically Taraba, Nassarawa and Rivers states.

Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (VHFs) are a group of illnesses caused by four families of viruses. These are the Ebola, Marburg, Lassa and Yellow fever viruses. VHFs have common features: they affect many organs, damage the blood vessels and affect the body’s ability to regulate itself.

The fever was first discovered in 1969, in the village of Lassa in Borno State, Nigeria and there have been countless outbreaks with varying levels of severity across West Africa with an estimate of 5,000 deaths since. Just recently, some people have been confirmed dead due to the disease in Taraba, Nasarawa and two people were confirmed to be killed by Lassa fever in Rivers State.

According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), there was a nationwide outbreak of Lassa fever in 10 states, in March 2014, which led to the loss of 20 lives, out of the 319 reported cases. The affected states were Anambra, Bauchi, Ebonyi, Edo, Gombe, Imo, Nasarawa, Ondo, Plateau and Taraba. In November last year, 270 Lassa fever cases were reported from 12 states, according to data from health officials.

Lassa fever is endemic in parts of West Africa including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria; however, other neighbouring countries are also at risk, as the animal vector for Lassa virus, the “Natal multimammate rat” is distributed throughout the region. According to experts, the disease is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or faecal matter while person-to-person transmission occurs through direct contact with the sick person.

Symptoms of Lassa fever include nasal bleeding, bleeding through the anus and mouth, respiratory distress, vomiting, facial swelling as well as back and abdominal pain.

There is no vaccine for Lassa fever currently available for use in humans and the only available drug, ribavirin, is only effective if administered within the first 6 days after the onset of the disease.

However, the governments of affected states have deployed health workers to sensitize the public as well as forged a partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the Lassa fever scourge. The Commissioner of Health of affected states has urged the public not to panic but to report to the nearest hospital or health centre if they experience symptoms such as persistent high fever, stooling, vomiting and bleeding from the nose, mouth and anus. “The public is advised to improve on the sanitation of their environment and home to prevent contact of rats with food stuffs”, said Dr. Theophilus Odagme.

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