The authorities could do more to contain the viral disease

Even though many Nigerians may not be paying attention, Lassa fever, a deadly viral disease that took its name from one of our communities, has within the last two months claimed the lives of dozens of our citizens, going by the official figures from both the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). What is particularly alarming is that, from the latest situation report released last Friday, the disease claimed 36 lives in just one week. Some 14 health workers have also lost their lives in six states. 

Perhaps to underscore the gravity of the situation, the United Kingdom has sent a team of experts to assist in containing the disease. 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.” Indeed, the WHO revealed last week that the number of confirmed cases in the past two months has exceeded the total number of cases reported throughout 2017 with 18 states now affected. Sadly, not only has the number of fatalities – put at 90 byFriday– increased, there are indeed reports that the official figures may not tell the complete story, especially in states like Ebonyi, Edo and Ondo where the disease is prevalent at the moment. The unofficial reports suggest that more than 100 lives may have been lost to what has, in all practical terms, become a national epidemic.

It is noteworthy that Lassa fever 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. The symptoms, which include fever, sore throat, vomiting, back pain, cough, abdominal pain, restlessness, and general body weakness usually appear six to 21 days after contact with the virus. But  there are recommended preventive measure such as avoiding contact with rats (dead or alive), keeping the house and surrounding clean, clearing all bushes around the house to avoid breeding sites for rats as well as putting refuse into covered dustbins and disposing appropriately.

The authorities should also heed the recommendation of WHO that, because reporting of confirmed cases in different parts of the country amid porous borders with neighbouring countries indicate a risk of further spread, public health actions should be focused on enhancing on-going activities including “surveillance, contact tracing, laboratory testing, and case management.”

However, because the symptoms of Lassa Fever are so varied and non-specific, clinical diagnosis is often difficult, especially early in the course of the disease. For that reason, steps should be taken by the federal government to direct all health facilities in the country to emphasise routine infection prevention and control measures. Healthcare workers should also be careful to avoid contact with blood and body fluids in the process of caring for sick persons.

While we believe that with effective coordination, the virus can be contained quickly before it becomes another national epidemic with dire implications, the real challenge is for all stakeholders to work towards its total eradication from our country.