It should be embarrassing to our political leaders, national security and our public health officials that an epidemic of Lassa fever should befall this country every now and then. Not only is Lassa fever so highly contagious, but it is also very deadly, with much suffering and a high mortality rate among infected persons. It is for these reasons, among others, that the latest outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria deserves a much more vigorous response than the authorities are right now offering. In short, it deserves a medical state of war.
The National Centre for Disease Control [NCDC] stated at the weekend that this country has already recorded 195 confirmed cases of Lassa virus infection in 11 states. Twenty-nine of those victims have already died. Majority of the confirmed cases are from Ondo, Ebonyi and Edo states. Other states where cases were reported included Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Jigawa. The Centre however said there has been a decline in the fatality rate of the reported cases from 23.4 percent in 2019 to 14.8 percent this year.
Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria. In fact, it was first diagnosed from Nigeria in 1969 when two missionaries died from a then strange illness in Lassa town of Borno State.
The Lassa fever is transmitted by rodents, which is bad news around here because rats are found in all our bushes and in most of our homes. It is transmitted through contact with items or surfaces contaminated with urine, faeces, saliva or blood of infected rats. Even worse, it can also be transmitted from person-to-person through contact with blood, urine, faeces and other body fluids of an infected person. It is so contagious that health workers who treat patients are at great risk of being infected. In fact, two health workers have already died in Kano State from Lassa fever. Early symptoms of Lassa fever include fever, headache, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and sore throat. In severe cases, the patient bleeds from body openings.
While the affected states battle to contain the situation and treat those already infected, NCDC said it had activated a National Emergency Operations Centre, NEOC, to coordinate response activities and minimize Lassa fever’s spread. NEOC has representatives from National Emergency Management Agency [NEMA], Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Federal Ministry of Environment, World Health Organization, UNICEF, US Centers for Disease Control and other partners. It pledged continuous support to states in strengthening their preparedness and response capacity and has deployed Rapid Response Teams to five affected states.
Minister of Health Dr. Osagie Ehanire, who led a high-level delegation to Kano State following the deaths of two health workers there from Lassa fever, said the country now has five laboratories with the capacity to diagnose the virus. This reduces the turnaround time between identifying a suspected case and confirmation and could reduce the number of deaths.
Although NCDC’s plan to contain the disease days after the reported outbreak in a number of states is welcome, much still needs to be done to stop the virus’ rapid spread. The first imperative is heightened public enlightenment about the virus and its transmitting agents, rats. Nigerians in rural and urban areas must be made aware of the danger we all face and what they can do to protect themselves and their families.
Quick diagnosis of Lassa fever is vital, for it makes all the difference for a patient’s chances of recovery. Five centres for diagnosing Lassa fever is an improvement because only a few years ago, we had only one such centre in Nigeria. But for a disease that could potentially affect the whole country, five centres is woefully inadequate. Setting up and manning such centres cannot be so expensive that our federal, state and local governments cannot afford it. They might not make a diagnosis for many years but whenever they do, they would have paid for their upkeep by saving lives and saving the country from much distress.
Next, governments should provide quarantine facilities to isolate suspected victims of Lassa fever infection. Adequate drugs should also be provided to treat those infected. We cannot wait until we have patients before we scurry around looking for the drugs. Lassa fever is much too lethal for time wasting. Given the dangers of this disease and its tendency to spread fast, all tiers of governments must have standing plans to contain its almost regular outbreaks.
Finally, we should find a way to stop Lassa fever epidemics altogether. Whether it is by containing rat populations, inoculating people or otherwise dealing with the virus, we must find a way. This is a major national health priority. It is a task that must be done.