The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports it is teaming up with national and international health agencies to tackle what appears to be the largest outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria. According to a Voice of America report the latest figures show 1,081 suspected cases of the disease, including 90 deaths.
The WHO reports 317 of more than 1,000 suspected cases of Lassa fever have been confirmed during the past eight weeks. It says the number is more than the 305 cases reported all of last year, making this the biggest Lassa fever outbreak to date.
While the disease is present in 17 Nigerian states, the WHO reports it is largely concentrated in the three southern states of Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi.
Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria, as it is in a number of West African countries. But, the report quotes WHO spokesperson Tarek Jasarevic as saying that investigations have been undertaken to find out why this year’s outbreak is so extensive. “(The) WHO is helping to coordinate health actors and is joining rapid risk assessment teams traveling to hot spots to investigate the outbreak. (The) WHO is supporting the Lassa fever Emergency Operations Centre that is led by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control to revise the Lassa fever incident Action Plan, and to strengthen surveillance, infection prevention control and treatment, as well as better coordination and conducting Lassa fever research and development,” Jasarevic said.
Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness that occurs in West Africa. The virus is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or faeces – Jasarevic said the virus also can be spread between humans.
“Once a person is infected, it can infect other people just like Ebola was through the body fluid. So, mainly that would be the health care workers who are not properly trained and who are not properly equipped who may then get infected inside the health care facilities,” Jasarevic said.
The incubation period of Lassa fever ranges from six to 21 days. The WHO says the best way to prevent the disease is by promoting good community hygiene to discourage rodents that spread the disease from entering homes. Besides storing grain and other foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers, the WHO suggests keeping cats in the home is a good idea.
A team of UK experts is being sent to Nigeria to help the country contain the outbreak, reports The Daily Telegraph. Local doctors estimate a mortality rate of over 20%, significantly higher than normal.
The report says the UK public health rapid support team, a joint initiative between Public Health England and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) was scrambled into action, Tuesday. The team includes two epidemiologists, an expert in patient management and a logistician. It deployed at the request of the Nigerian government and will also provide research assistance.
Daniel Bausch, director of the rapid support team, said: “The Lassa fever situation in Nigeria has been worsening and now requires an escalated level of response in order to help the Nigerian government slow transmission and save lives.”
Public Mealth minister Steve Brine added: “Viruses like Lassa fever do not respect borders – and it is only right that we share our expertise with countries facing serious outbreaks around the world”.
Wondimagegnehu Alemu, WHO representative to Nigeria, described the high number of cases as “concerning”.
South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has issued an alert on the Nigeria and other affected West African countries’ lassa fever outbreak. This comments on the screening measures in place at South Africa’s points of entry and the authorities’ preparedness to cope with the disease.