Lassa fever is still a major public health problem in Nigeria

Lassa fever has perhaps been brushed off as a major public health problem in the country as Covid-19 is getting all the attention – as elsewhere in the world. But the viral disease also deserves some attention. A report from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has shown that no fewer than 188 Nigerians have died in the current outbreak of Lassa fever. The outbreak cuts across the country but it is prevalent in Edo, Ondo, Ebonyi, Bauchi and Sokoto.

Anybody who has been following the weekly updates on the viral disease cannot but be worried by the inability to effectively tackle what has become an annual 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 believe that the authorities need to do more if we are ever to rid the nation of the disease.

According to the NCDC Director General, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, recent epidemiological data reveals that the trend usually occurs during the dry season, between January and April. But not much has been done towards strengthening infection prevention and control practices. 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 are still 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.

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 bodily 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, as with coronavirus. 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 should deploy the National Orientation Agency (NOA) for more 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 eradication from our country. That is an urgent task for the health authorities at all levels of government.