The Federal Government last week confirmed the outbreak of Lassa fever, which claimed some lives in some parts of the country. The Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, confirmed 16 deaths from 60 cases of Lassa fever from eight states. According to him, about 590 people out of 593 contacts were currently under watch in the affected states since the beginning of the year.
The outbreak of Lassa fever in the country is particularly worrisome. More worrisome is the fact that the vaccine for the viral hemorrhagic fever is yet to be developed. Nigeria is one of the few countries that Lassa fever outbreaks kill people nearly every year.
Lassa fever, also known as Lassa Hemorrhagic Fever (LHF), is a type of fever caused by the Lassa virus. It is an extremely virulent and often infectious disease usually caused by contact with urine or faeces of infected rats. It has been discovered that many of those infected by the virus hardly develop symptoms. When they do, the symptoms include fever, weakness, headaches, vomiting, and muscle pains. Occasionally, victims may experience bleeding from the mouth or gastrointestinal tract.
The virus was first described in 1969 from a case in Lassa, a town in Borno State. The disease is common in West Africa, especially in Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ghana. Statistics show that between 300, 000 and 500, 000 cases are reported each year, which result in about 5, 000 deaths.
Lassa fever occurs in individuals following contact with the urine or faeces of an infected multimammate rat. The disease may be spread via direct contact between people. A more scary fact is that diagnosis based on symptoms is usually difficult, as laboratory test is required to determine the presence of the Lassa fever in the body.
Since there is no vaccine to prevent the disease or curtail its spread, those infected are usually put in isolation, while people they might have contacted are placed under watch. The most potent way of preventing Lassa fever is through decreasing contact with rats or elimination of rats from homes.
We are concerned about the frequent outbreaks of this disease in spite of past efforts to contain it. However, it is good that the NCDC is working with the affected states to curtail the spread of the fever. They must ensure that the disease do not spread to other states in the country.
Since the NCDC is aware that Lassa fever is usually prevalent in the dry season, especially between January and April, it should ensure that adequate preventive measures are instituted across the country. It is noteworthy that the NCDC has offered suggestions that might help prevent or curtail the spread of the disease. The agency canvasses the storage of grains and foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers, disposing of garbage far from the home and the maintenance of clean households, among others.
It further advised that hand washing should be practised frequently. The public is also enjoined to avoid bush burning. Health care workers are reminded that Lassa fever presents initially like any other disease, causing febrile illness such as malaria. Healthcare providers are advised to practise standard precautions at all times.
It is reassuring that the NCDC has developed national guidelines for infection prevention and control as well as Lassa fever case management and distributed same to the states, just as they have been made available on the NCDC website.
It is important that the agency invests more on public enlightenment and community engagement on the mode of transmission as well as the need for proper hygiene and environmental sanitation all year round. Nigerians should be enlightened on the risk factors associated with the spread of the disease as well as protective measures that should be instituted to reduce infection. Let the government put in place adequate measures to curb the spread of the disease and prevent more deaths.