Lassa fever has continued to spread in Nigeria with 913 suspected cases and 73 deaths in 17 states this year with Edo and Ondo bearing 75 per cent of the burden. The acute viral haemorrhagic illness of two-21 days duration is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or faeces.An earlier report, penultimate week, had put the figures at 615 suspected cases with 43 deaths. The unprecedented outbreak, in severe cases, causes facial swelling, fluid in the lung cavity, bleeding from the mouth, nose, vagina or gastrointestinal tract and low blood pressure.
Analysis of these figures published by The Nigeria Centres for Disease Control (NCDC) Abuja showed that cases of Lassa fever have rocketed by nearly 50 per cent in ten days (from 615 on February 13 to 913 on February 23). Another interesting thing is that the case fatality ratio (CFR) has increased from 15 per cent recorded by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Fact Sheet on Lassa fever to 23.9 per cent by the NCDC.
The Guardian investigation revealed that the rapid spread of the virus might be the high cost of the only available effective treatment, antiviral drug ribavirin, at N500, 000 per patient. This means the Federal Government would need more than N456.5 million to treat the suspected 913 cases.
According to the WHO, the antiviral drug ribavirin seems to be an effective treatment for Lassa fever if given early in the course of clinical illness. There is no evidence to support the role of ribavirin as post-exposure prophylactic treatment for Lassa fever.It is also gathered that there is currently no vaccine that protects against Lassa fever and only prompt detection and early onset of treatment can save patients’ lives.
This situation is unfolding just days after the WHO named the deadly virus in its list of pathogens that pose the most “urgent” threat to human existence.When contacted yesterday, the National Coordinator and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, said: “The numbers are still increasing. We are doing everything possible to contain the situation. The facilities in the two states with 75 per cent of the burden are overstretched that is Irrua Specialist Hospital, Edo State, and Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Owo, Ondo. The situation is also bad in Ebonyi. We have to focus on prevention especially the health workers who are very vulnerable. They have to always use universal precaution.”
On why the Federal Government is always reactive and not proactive on this type of situations, the epidemiologist said: “Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria. Humans usually become infected with Lassa virus from exposure to urine or faeces of infected Mastomys rats. Lassa virus may also be spread between humans through direct contact with the blood, urine, faeces, or other bodily secretions of a person infected with Lassa fever.’’Manager of the NCDC’s Lassa Fever Emergency Operations Centre, Elsie Ilori, said, “the situation currently ‘is overwhelming.”
In an interview with Bloomberg, she explained that the current outbreak is “more than what we have seen before.” Currently, Lassa fever testing is carried out across three laboratories in Nigeria. The NCDC has provided support for all testing laboratories with provision of reagents and other consumables. “It is hoped that in the near future, States are able to build and support laboratories to carry out Lassa fever testing.”