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While the threat of coronavirus looms across East Asia, West Africa has been hit with a different virus – the Lassa fever, also known as Lassa hemorrhagic fever (LHF).
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has confirmed that from January 1 to 29, a total of 41 people have died from the fever, with 258 cases reported – including five health workers – across 19 states. From January 1 to January 24, 2020, the NCDC recorded 29 deaths and 195 confirmed cases in Nigeria.
What is Lassa fever?
The disease takes its name from the town Lassa situated in northern Nigeria where it was first identified in 1969. Lassa fever is endemic to Nigeria and can cause severe bleeding and, in the worst-case scenario, organ failure. The virus originates from the same family as Ebola and Marburg viruses. However, it is less dangerous. LHF is primarily transmitted through contact with rat feces or urine.
Lassa fever is asymptomatic in 80% of cases, meaning that patients do not show any symptoms of having contracted the virus. In some cases, LHF is said to cause fever, physical fatigue, vomiting, bouts of headaches, abdominal pains, nausea, diarrhea and sore throat. The fever can also cause neck or facial swelling in some patients.
Reaction from public health authorities
The Director of Planning and Statistics at the State Ministry of Health, Dr. Chinwe Atata, told reporters on January 29 in Port Harcourt, the capital and largest city of Rivers State in Nigeria, that the Public Health Emergency Operation Centre (PHEOC) has since been making efforts towards containing the outbreak of the disease.
According to Atata, health experts have also been carrying out decontamination of facilities, presumptive prophylaxis and surveillance to ensure public health safety.
Outbreak in numbers
There were 170 cases of casualties caused by Lassa fever reported in the whole of 2019. In the month of January 2019 alone, 42 deaths were reported, close to the numbers in 2020 at 41 deaths.
Nigeria has declared an outbreak of Lassa fever for this year, although the NCDC announced that the fatality rate is lower at 15.9% in 2020, down from 19.7% recorded during the same period last year.
The outbreak typically spikes in January due to the dry weather and the virus’s ability to linger for longer in low-humidity conditions.
The disease has also appeared in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo and Benin in the past, with reports saying it had killed at least 9 people in 2016.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is currently no vaccine that protects against Lassa fever.