A team of experts from United Kingdom is being sent to Nigeria to help the country contain the biggest outbreak of Lassa fever in recent years.
According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, 90 people are suspected to have died from the virus in the last eight weeks alone, with a further 1,081 suspected cases. The disease, which is spread by rats, causes a high fever and in severe cases, bleeding from the mouth and nose.
Local doctors estimate a mortality rate of over 20per cent, significantly higher than normal.
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 yesterday.
The team, according UK-based Telegraph, 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: â€œThe 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.â€
Public health minister Steve Brine added: â€œViruses like Lassa Fever do not respect borders â€“ and it is only right that we share our expertise with countries facing serious outbreaks around the world.â€
Wondimagegnehu Alemu, WHO representative to Nigeria, described the high number of cases as â€œconcerning.â€
The outbreak began at the end of last year and the Nigerian government has so far been able to solidly confirm 317 cases and 64 deaths. Among confirmed and probable cases the fatality rate is 22 per cent, the centre said.
Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria and usually occurs between October and March but this year it has been much more virulent than in previous years.
It has now spread to 18 out of the countryâ€™s 36 states but is most prevalent in the southern states of Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi.
Among those infected in the current outbreak are 11 health workers, four of whom have died and WHO has been working with the Nigerian government to ensure that workers are adequately protected.
Ian Jones, professor of virology at Reading University, said he did not know why the outbreak, which is transmitted to humans via rats, was particularly virulent this year.
â€œThere are classic cases where thereâ€™s been a particularly good grain harvest so you get an increase in the rodent population. Then the rodent population transmits whatever it happens to carry. Nigeria is a busy place and thereâ€™s been a general urbanisation in the country. Where people go into areas that they did not previously enter is another classic example of risk,â€ he said.
He added that the disease was not as easily transmittable as other viral diseases such as Ebola but he added, â€œIf someone is very ill with the disease, like any other haemorrhagic fever it can be the case you will get transmission to people who you are in very close contact with such as family members or health care workers.â€