…Here are tips on staying safe

Nigeria recorded 20 deaths across 16 states from Lassa fever in a space of one week, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC).

The NCDC, in its report on the ninth week of 2024 covering February 26 to March 3, reported an increase in the number of Lassa fever cases to 109, from 96 cases recorded the previous week.

Lassa fever is a viral illness caused by the Lassa virus and transmitted to humans through contact with the urine or faeces of infected rats, or through direct contact with the blood, urine, semen, or breast milk of infected humans.

The symptoms of Lassa fever include fever, headache, malaise, weakness, muscle pain, chest pain, sore throat, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well as hemorrhage in severe cases.

Nigeria continues to struggle with new cases and deaths despite significant efforts, demonstrating the persistent threat that Lassa fever poses.

Many states, including Ondo, Bauchi, Edo, Benue, Ebonyi, Kogi, Kaduna, Taraba, Enugu, Delta, Jigawa, Adamawa, Anambra, Rivers, Ogun, and Oyo, have been affected by the outbreak.

According to the report, the majority of affected people are between the ages of 31 and 40, and a somewhat higher frequency in men than in women, with 62 per cent of confirmed cases originating from Ondo, Edo and Bauchi while the remaining 38 per cent are spread across 24 states.

NCDC said the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) would oversee a comprehensive response at all levels in coordination with the National Lassa Fever multi-partner, multi-sectoral incident management system, which has been launched in response to the epidemic.

Here’s how to stay safe

The good news about Lassa fever is that it is preventable. To prevent further spread, avoid bush burning, indiscriminate waste disposal, and maintain high standards of communal hygiene. Healthcare providers should also desist from managing illnesses beyond their scope and should promptly refer such cases as early treatment is key to survival and containing spread.

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According to the WHO, Lassa fever prevention relies heavily on promoting good “community hygiene” in order to discourage rodents from entering homes.

“Effective measures include storing grain and other foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers, disposing of garbage far from the home, maintaining clean households and keeping cats.

“Because Mastomys are so abundant in endemic areas, it is not possible to completely eliminate them from the environment. Family members should always be careful to avoid contact with blood and body fluids while caring for sick persons,” the world health agency said.

Apart from transmission to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or faeces, the specialised UN agency responsible for international public health warns that person-to-person infections and laboratory transmission can also occur, particularly in hospitals lacking adequate infection prevention and control measures.

Therefore, in order to prevent this, it advised that health-care staff should always apply standard infection prevention and control precautions when caring for patients, regardless of their presumed diagnosis.

“These include basic hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, use of personal protective equipment (to block splashes or other contact with infected materials), safe injection practices and safe burial practices,” the WHO said.

“Health-care workers caring for patients with suspected or confirmed Lassa fever should apply extra infection control measures to prevent contact with the patient’s blood and body fluids and contaminated surfaces or materials such as clothing and bedding. When in close contact (within 1 metre) of patients with Lassa fever, health-care workers should wear face protection (a face shield or a medical mask and goggles), a clean, non-sterile long-sleeved gown, and gloves (sterile gloves for some procedures),” it said.

The world health agency said laboratory workers are also at risk and advised that samples taken from humans and animals for investigation of Lassa virus infection should be handled by trained staff and processed in suitably equipped laboratories under maximum biological containment conditions.

“On rare occasions, travellers from areas where Lassa fever is endemic export the disease to other countries. Although malaria, typhoid fever, and many other tropical infections are much more common, the diagnosis of Lassa fever should be considered in febrile patients returning from West Africa, especially if they have had exposures in rural areas or hospitals in countries where Lassa fever is known to be endemic. Health-care workers seeing a patient suspected to have Lassa fever should immediately contact local and national experts for advice and to arrange for laboratory testing,” the WHO said.

Once a patient has been infected with the Lassa fever virus, the WHO advised early supportive care with rehydration and symptomatic treatment to improve survival.