Nigeria: Again, Ravages of Lassa Fever

Lassa fever public health advisory (file photo).
14 January 2022

More could be done to contain the viral disease

Amid the crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, Lassa fever, another viral disease, has again resurfaced. Last Monday, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) warned that the disease is ravaging many communities across the country. The gravity of the current health emergency was driven home by the large number of fatalities. At the last count, more than 4,600 patients had been infected with more than 100 deaths. Ondo State is leading the pack with 47 deaths, Edo, 15, while Bauchi and Taraba recorded 12 deaths each.

The recurrence of the epidemic is perhaps a reminder that the disease is not being given adequate attention. It is a disease of the poor since many of the reported cases are in rural areas. Even so, it had claimed the lives of many health workers, including doctors. Indeed, no fewer than 40 health workers have died of the disease in Ebonyi State alone in the past few years. Since the last outbreak in 2016, there has been an upsurge in the number of cases. In 2019, for instance, the centre recorded 796 cases while the number increased to 1,165 in 2020.

Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness caused by Lassa fever. The disease has been a serious challenge for Nigeria's health authorities since it was first diagnosed in Lassa (the village for which it was named) in Borno State in 1969. Despite the fact that there have been efforts in the past to contain the scourge, it is unfortunate that we have been witnessing frequent outbreaks in recent years.

Humans are infected with the virus through exposure to food or household items contaminated with urine or faeces of infected rats. Its symptoms, according to the NCDC, include fever, headache, sore throat, general body weakness, cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pains and in severe cases, bleeding from ears, eyes, nose or mouth. "The time between an infection and appearance of symptoms of the disease is six to 21 days," said the NCDC. "Early diagnosis and treatment increase the chances of survival."

It is unfortunate that despite the fact that it is now a national epidemic, there is little public awareness of how the disease could be prevented. But there are recommended preventive measure such as avoiding contact with rats (dead or alive), keeping the house and surroundings clean, clearing all bushes around the house to avoid breeding sites for rats as well as putting refuse into covered dustbins and disposing appropriately. However, because the symptoms of Lassa fever are so varied and non-specific, clinical diagnosis could be difficult, especially early in the course of the disease. For this reason, steps should be taken by the government to direct all health facilities in the country to emphasise routine infection prevention and control measures. In its latest advisory, the NCDC said health workers should "maintain a high index suspicion for Lassa fever. Any illness that has not responded to 48 hours use of anti-malaria or antibiotics should raise an index suspicion for Lassa fever."

While we believe that with effective coordination, the disease could be contained quickly before it becomes another public health emergency with dire implications for the lives of our people, the real challenge is to work towards its total eradication from our country. That is a task for the health authorities at all levels of government.

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