Nigeria’s biggest outbreak of Lassa fever

You may have read about the disease that is currently spreading throughout Nigeria in last weeks health roundup. The outbreak of Lassa fever started in January and there is still an increasing trend in the number of cases. Lassa fever can cause serious epidemics and no vaccine is currently available.

Nigerian roots

Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic fever which was first discovered in Nigeria in 1969. Since then, the disease has spread across Western Africa with outbreaks seen in Ghana, Mali and Sierra Leone.

When people first catch Lassa fever, they may suffer from no symptoms at all or they might suffer from mild symptoms such as a fever or a headache. Yet as the disease develops, symptoms can include bleeding through the nose, mouth and other parts of the body.

Ribavirin is the only drug available that can treat the disease, but it must be administered to the patient within the first 6 days of infection in order to be effective.

Healthcare workers at risk

The disease is spread from people coming into contact with anything contaminated with rat urine, faeces, blood or saliva. For example, through eating, drinking or even handling contaminated objects.

It can also pass from person to person through bodily fluids. This is why healthcare workers are becoming increasingly infected when dealing with patients who have been diagnosed with Lassa fever.

Higher fatality rate

Although the fatality rate is usually 1%, the current outbreak in Nigeria has an estimated fatality rate of 22% according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). A woman who is in the late stages of pregnancy faces an 90% chance of losing her child if she contracts the disease.

Nigeria is suffering from its largest ever outbreak of Lassa fever. Health workers are doing their best but do not have sufficient resources and are becoming overstretched. It has been reported that 4 healthcare workers have died from the disease.

At least 90 people have been confirmed dead in the latest outbreak, although it is likely that this number is actually higher because Lassa is known to be difficult to diagnose.

The high number of cases in Nigeria is rare for this time of year. Normally, outbreaks are determined by seasonal weather changes which affect the virus’s natural host’s movements, the multimammate rat.

More needs to be done

Unfortunately, the challenge to fight against Lassa is hindered by the lack of necessary medical equipment such as vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests. The WHO is trying to coordinate the response to the outbreak with Nigerian authorities, and although no vaccine exists for Lassa, there is hope.

A new organisation called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has been set up thanks to financial support from the Wellcome Trust, national governments and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

CEPI aims to speed up vaccine production which is known to be a very complex and expensive process. A vaccine for Lassa fever is a top priority for the organisation.

Fingers crossed a vaccine will be created for Lassa fever soon, and African patients begin to get the medical attention they need.