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How to avoid Lassa Fever

Toks David, Lagos |

What it is

It has no known vaccine. Its general symptoms – headaches, weakness, fever, vomiting – are indistinguishable from Malaria; and its more terrifying signs – bleeding from the mouth, nose, other orifices and the gastrointestinal tract – are not dissimilar to the effects of Ebola.

It is hard to diagnose and even harder to treat once it is misdiagnosed as say, appendicitis, for instance, causing a delay in the early administration of its most effective antiviral medication, Ribavirin.

So what is this common yet unsettling illness that is being reported in states as far apart as Delta and Gombe, in a country where just last month alone 21 people died as a result, triggering major health crises anywhere new cases appear?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls Lassa Fever “a zoonotic disease, meaning that humans become infected from contact with infected animals.”

The host animal in the case of Lassa Fever – a disease that was first described in 1969 in Lassa, Borno state – is the common household mouse, referred to as the “multimammate rat” (or Mastomys rodent for short). As carriers, the rodents “do not become ill, but shed the virus in their urine and faeces.”

It is human contact with the urine and faeces of these carrier rats, usually via food or other household items contaminated with them, that transmits the virus from animal to human, which subsequently passes from human-to-human through contact with the bodily fluids (blood, urine, faeces, and other bodily secretions) of the infected person. The virus can even be sexually transmitted via semen for up to three months after infection.

As one of West Africa’s most common viral hemorrhagic disease, the risk of contagion is especially dire in rural areas, and urban areas with poor sanitation and crowded conditions – squalid settings where the Mastomys rat can hover, multiply and spread the infection unbeknownst to humans.

Worse? Lassa Fever is 80% asymptomatic, meaning that just 20% of those infected develop symptoms; implying that most people who have it might not even know it.

What are the Stats

1% Normal Risk of Death from infection

2-21 Incubation period in days

14 Days within which death occurs from onset in fatal cases

15-20% Hospitalized Patients who die from the illness

25% of Patients who survive the disease become deaf 

33% Deaths attributed to the disease in West African hospitals

50% Risk of death during an epidemic 

80% Mortality in women infected in late pregnancy 

5,000 Annual Deaths in West Africa

100,000 – 3,000,000 Total estimate of people infected in a year


What to do

Good Community Hygiene, as recommended by WHO. Important because the agency has determined that the disease is a likely cause of a future epidemic in the West African region, much like Ebola, if a vaccine is not developed quickly. WHO suggested preventative measures include:

  • Discouraging rodents from entering homes. Do whatever you can to keep them out.
  • Storing grain and other foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers
  • Disposing your garbage as far away from the home as possible
  • Maintaining a clean households and keeping cats (to chase away the mice). WHO says that “because Mastomys are so abundant in endemic areas, it is not possible to completely eliminate them from the environment,” but you can do the next best thing by always being careful to avoid contact with “blood and body fluids while caring for sick persons.”
  • If you’re a health care worker, use protective equipment (gloves, masks, laboratory coats, and goggles), maintain hygienic practices, and keep the patient isolated and in a sterile environment. WHO recommends also that “Health-care workers seeing a patient suspected to have Lassa fever should immediately contact local and national experts.” In Nigeria the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) coordinates and implements testings and treatment measures across the designated health centres and labs.

What not to do

  • Do not knowingly expose yourself to persons diagnosed with the disease.
  • Do not touch, play with or cut open a rat’s dead body.
  • Do not delay going to your primary health care provider if you notice any of the symptoms described above.
  • Do not be careless about where you eat and what you eat.
  • Do not ignore the warnings and precautions of health authorities who are actively rolling out a sentisisation campaign about the disease which, according to Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the NCDC, now has a fatality ratio of twenty to thirty percent, having killed over a 100 people in Lagos and Abuja in 2016 alone, with more cases of infections or fatalities reported every other day.
  • Don’t doubt for one second that an outbreak is possible. Remember Ebola?

About author

Tokunbo David
Tokunbo David

Writer and editor.

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July 2018
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