THE RETURN OF LASSA FEVER 

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The authorities should ensure that the viral disease is contained

The Nigeria Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC) last week confirmed 16 deaths from 60 cases of Lassa fever with 590 out of 593 reported contacts currently under watch in eight states of the country since the beginning of the year. Against the background of repeated commitments by various stakeholders to prevent a recurrence of this disease, what the current outbreak has shown very clearly is that if indeed there have been any preventive strategies, they were not implemented. The task at hand is to prevent the disease from spreading beyond these states.

According to the NCDC Director General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, recent epidemiological data reveals that this trend usually occurs during the dry season, between January and April. He added that the Lassa fever national multi-partner, multi-agency Technical Working Group (TWG) will continue to coordinate response activities at all levels. We commend him and his team for providing support to states including the provision of emergency supplies and deployment of Rapid Response Teams (RRT) for coordination, contact tracing, case management, risk communication and strengthening infection prevention and control practices.

It is unfortunate 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 all the efforts in the past to contain the scourge, it is unfortunate that we have been witnessing frequent outbreaks in recent years. We, therefore, hope the authorities will take both preventive and long-term measures this time around so that we do not continue to witness the death of our health professionals and care givers.

Lassa fever is an acute febrile illness which is caused by a virus with an incubation period of between six to 21 days. The onset of the disease is usually gradual, starting with fever, general weakness, before being followed by headache, sore throat, muscle pain, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, cough, and bleeding from mouth, nose, etc. 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, etc.

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 advised to always be careful to avoid contact with blood and body fluids in the process of caring for sick persons.

 Experts have advised that people should ensure their food (cooked or uncooked) is properly covered while regular hand-washing should be adhered to always. The bush around the home should also be cleared regularly while windows and doors of the house should be closed especially when it is night time. The general public should also be adequately enlightened on the dangers posed by rats in their homes. This should be the responsibility of both the Federal Ministry of Environment and that of Information that can deploy the National Orientation Agency (NOA) for a public awareness campaign on the issue.

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