A Lassa fever outbreak in Lafia, Nasarawa State, caused the death of at least one out of three infected persons. According to the Chief Medical Director of the Dalhatu Araf Specialist Hospital (DASH) in Lafia, Dr Ahmed Yakubu Ashiki, the status of the other victims confirmed the virus after diagnosis. All three victims were neighbours in Tudun Gwandara, a high-density area of the state capital.
Other reports said that the viral disease claimed two lives in the central Plateau town of Kagbwir in Kanke Local Government Area. The Plateau State Commissioner of Health, Dr Fom Dakwak, said in Jos that at least two others were down with the virus at the Vom Christian Hospital.
These reports have galvanised officials of the Federal Ministry of Health to despatch experts to investigate the outbreak, which has also claimed three lives in Benue State.
The ministry's epidemiological division confirmed that 1,172 cases of Lassa fever with 50 deaths were reported in 2011. Some 1,656 cases of the disease with 112 deaths in 23 states of the federation were reported last year.
Four decades after the disease was first described in Nigeria, health authorities ought to have sketched a surveillance map by now, based on the distribution of rodents responsible for the transmission of Lassa fever virus in the country. This would guide them on what research activities to carry out, the results of which would determine prevention and intervention strategies.
Lassa fever is an acute hemorrhagic fever that was first discovered in 1969 in Lassa town in Borno State, hence its name. Since then, the disease has claimed hundreds of lives. The virus is transmitted by contact with the faeces and urine of the carrier-rodent. It is endemic in the West Africa sub-region. Lassa fever, which is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood, urine or faeces, can be contracted by the inhalation of tiny particles in the air contaminated with rodent droppings. Contaminated medical equipment can also spread the disease.
Symptoms of Lassa fever include nausea, vomiting of blood, stomach ache, constipation, hepatitis, abnormal high heart rate and respiratory tract cough. Other symptoms are passing blood in stool, body rashes, jaundice and other symptoms commonly found in malaria and typhoid fever.
Refuse dump sites close to residential areas are convenient places for the breeding and survival of rodents. Addressing the problem would begin with measures to control the rodent population; that of course is easier said than done. But it would help if members of the public are involved, through safe food storage and water in covered or rat-proof containers.
Lassa fever is a seasonal disease that is prevalent between January and April as a result of bush burning that forces rodents out of their habitats to take refuge in nearby houses. The number of victims would be minimized if communities in rodent-infested communities are periodically enlightened on the precautions required to identify and forestall possible outbreaks.
Awareness about the disease is perhaps the best preventive measure since no vaccine against Lassa fever exists at the moment. Such awareness campaigns should discourage communities in the hinterland from drying their grains on road shoulders along the highways because they could easily get contaminated with the urine and faeces of rodents.
The government should establish additional testing centres in the country, particularly in endemic areas of the country. Efforts should also be made to provide more trained personnel for the Institute for Lassa Fever Research and Control Centre in Irrua, Edo State. More isolation facilities should also be provided at the hospital because of the highly contagious nature of the virus.