THE MENACE OF LASSA FEVER

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Health authorities should work towards eliminating the disease

Anybody who has been following the weekly updates on Lassa fever from the Nigeria Centre for Diseases Control (NCDC) cannot but be worried by the inability to effectively tackle what has become a menace. Against the background of repeated commitments by various stakeholders to prevent a recurrence of the disease, what the current outbreak has shown clearly is that if indeed there have been any preventive strategies, they were not implemented. We therefore believe that the authorities need to do more if we are ever to rid the nation of the disease that claims the lives of dozens of our citizens on an annual basis.

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 sad that we have been witnessing frequent outbreaks in recent years. We, therefore, hope that 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 caregivers.

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, followed by headache, sore throat, muscle pain, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, cough, and bleeding from mouth, nose, etc. But there are recommended preventive measures such as avoiding contact with rats (dead or alive), keeping the house and surrounding clean, clearing the 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 general public should also be adequately enlightened on the dangers posed by rats in their homes. The federal ministry of environment and that of information can deploy the National Orientation Agency (NOA) for public awareness campaigns 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.