By Dottie Stearns

The Nigeria Centre of Disease Control (NCDC) confirms increasing number of Lassa fever cases in Nigeria and advises precaution against the disease. Since the onset of the dry season starting in December 2016, 7 states have reported at least one case of Lassa fever and 19 confirmed cases and 6 deaths have been reported by 7 states as of January 16th. Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria, as well as Benin, Ghana, Guinez, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and possibly other West African countries.

According to the WHO, Lassa fever is a zoonotic disease and the animal reservoir of the Lassa virus is a rodent from the genus Mastomys (“multimammate rat”). These rats do not become sick when infected, but they still shed the virus through urine and feces. Humans are often infected by exposure to the urine and feces. Humans can also spread the virus through urine, blood, feces, and other body fluids to another human.

The NCDC has begun its implementation of its preparedness plan in anticipation of the dry season to increase national capacity to respond to this outbreak of Lassa fever.

This includes:

  • Increasing health worker mobilization and sensitization for the fever
  • Epidemiological response activities, which can include contact listing and tracing
  • Fortifying previously identified and resourced isolation units

Lassa fever patients can recover quicker when rapid diagnosis through the use of laboratory testing and treatment are early. The antiviral drug Ribavirin is effective if given early or during the clinical illness. This may require agencies to boost laboratory efforts in detecting the fever, as well as increased production of the antiviral drug if needed.

NCDC and other state agencies recommend the following precautions for the public and health facility workforce.

  • Keep food safe from rats and rat excreta. This can include storing grain and other foods inside rat-proof containers, as well as removal of garbage from a household.
  • Healthcare workers, such as doctors and nurses, are major transmitters of the fever. Infection prevention and control measures must be maintained.
  • All flu-like illnesses should be tested for malaria and then for Lassa fever should the malaria test be negative.
  • Improving personal hygiene. Those that live in rural areas or communities with poor sanitation and/or crowded living conditions are at an increased risk for rat exposure.

Rodent control will not be enough to control the virus since rodents cannot be eliminated from the transmission cycle. Healthcare workers are responsible for maintaining adequate infection precaution standards and this should be improved in addition to vector control.