Panic mounts over Lassa fever resurgence

There has been heightened panic following the been a resurgence of Lassa fever in the country, even as fatalities have been reported in some states including two healthcare workers infected in Ebonyi state, KEHINDE OSASONA writes.

Lassa fever, an acute viral hemorrhagic illness caused by the Lassa virus, a member of the arena virus family of viruses, has reared its head again in Nigeria leading to a number of deaths.

Humans usually become infected with Lassa virus through exposure to food or household items contaminated with urine or feaces excrement  dung of infected mastomys rats.

It is common in West Africa, with most people getting mild symptoms, like fever and headache.

Lassa fever is known to be endemic in Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Nigeria, but probably exists in other West African countries as well.

Poor environmental sanitation, little or no awareness, and late presentation of cases are reported to fuel the epidemic in Nigeria.

The disease was discovered in 1969, when two missionary nurses died of a mysterious disease in the remote town of Lassa in Borno state in North-eastern Nigeria.

When a third nurse fell ill, she was evacuated to a hospital in New York City, along with a thermos full of blood and other samples from all three nurses, bound for Yale University’s then-new Arbovirus Research Unit.

There, a team led by Jordi Casals-Ariet isolated a novel virus from the samples. He, too, almost died in the process, saved only by an infusion of antibody-rich plasma from the third nurse, who recovered.

For now, the only treatment is a non-specific antiviral drug, ribavirin. Blueprint Weekend reports that if it’s administered during the first six days of the infection, seems to improve a patient’s prognosis, but “no one arrives before day seven. Nor is everyone convinced that ribavirin works on Lassa fever, as the only data come from the 1980s,” says Augier.

According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Lassa fever situation report in 2023, the scourge has continued to spread in Nigeria with 676 confirmed cases recorded across 89 local government areas in 22 states in the country in 2023 alone.

In 2018, the former Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, reported 31 deaths from the Lassa fever outbreak in 15 states.

According to Adewole, the cases were in Bauchi, Plateau, Taraba, Nasarawa, Benue, Kogi, Ebonyi, Rivers, Imo, Anambra, Edo, Delta, Ondo, Osun and Lagos states.

2022 resurgence

When in 2022 the disease resurfaced, no fewer than 40 people died within the first four weeks in 43 Local Government Areas across 14 States of the country, out of a total of 211 persons that were confirmed infected within the period.

The agency in its Lassa fever Situation Report Epi Week 4:24-30 January, 2022, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, observed that there were 981 suspected cases against 507 cases recorded within the same period in 2021.

The statement showed that the number of new confirmed cases decreased from 74 in week 3, 2022 to 42 cases in week 4.

While it lasted, there were reports from Ondo, Bauchi, Edo, Enugu and Delta states. The NCDC stated that each of the 14 states recorded at least one confirmed case across 43 Local Government Areas.

“Of all confirmed cases, 82 per cent are from Ondo, 30 per cent, Edo, 27 per cent, and Bauchi, 25 per cent, states.

Most of those affected are aged 21-30 years, with a male to female ratio for confirmed cases of 1:0.8.

… 2024

When the nation was yet to totally overcome the remnants of the Lassa fever outbreak in the last few years, a new report from Ebonyi State Ministry of Health, last week, indicated that Lassa fever killed 10 people in the state from January 4, to February 16, 2024.

The ministry’s Disease Surveillance Notification Officer, Mr. Sampson Orogwu, while making the disclosure in Abakaliki stated that 25 people were infected, including two healthcare workers.

The new waves of the disease have already affected Onicha, Ikwo, Ezza North, Ebonyi, Izzi, Ohaukwu and Abakaliki with Hausa quarters and Nkaliki areas in Abakaliki.

Panic mounts

Owing to the loss of lives that followed the previous outbreak in Nigeria, findings by Blueprint Weekend indicated that people are already jittery and like those before it, the stubborn virus might be difficult to control this time.

In an exclusive chat with our correspondent, Ann Okudile told this medium that she is a business woman travelling from place to place to buy stuff, insecurity and lately the return of Lassa has complicated things for her.

She said: “I travelled to the southern and northern part of the country to buy stuff and sell. Basically, I am into buying and selling and in fact before now, the rate of insecurity has slowed me down and now that Lassa has entered it, it won’t be long that you hear that the next state has been affected.

“I said that because it has always been the pattern. It is such a deadly and difficult virus to deal with. Imagine when you travel out of your comfort zone and you are afraid to eat out.

“Yes, you would because you are at the mercy of whoever you don’t know how careful and watchful that cooks your food and gives you drinks or what have you.

“So, for me, the government should please contain it before it starts spreading. I hope the minister of health will act fast,” Okudile said.

Also speaking to our correspondent, another concerned Nigerian, Felix Jeminiwa, said he is not in a panic mode, saying the government of Ebonyi, the NCDC and the federal government are on top of the situation, but warned against any negligence on the part of experts handling the situation.

“The Ebonyi report is scary but not enough for us to start panicking. We have experienced this before and I think we should just crush it and move on.

“Again, for me, the government of Ebonyi should engage in serious awareness to stop the spread via campaign while the neighbouring states should be proactive enough to halt the spread. Am not an expert but I think it is the right thing to do,” Jeminiwa stated.

Hope in sight?

Earlier, in addressing the grave situation, the Nigerian Infectious Diseases Agency before now activated the National Lassa fever multi-partner, multi-sectoral Emergency Operations Centre, galvanising coordinated efforts across all levels of the country.

Among other things, the task hinges on avoiding any form of contact with rodents and their feaces, adhering to stringent personal hygiene practices, and taking utmost precautions when caring for infected individuals.

But like the State Epidemiologist, Dr Ogbonna Nwambeke, advised that the state government should continue to collaborate with relevant partners to check the spread of the disease.

Provision of logistics to increase surveillance, community engagement against risk factors, and maintenance of a high level of personal and environmental hygiene, according to Nwambeke would also go a long way..