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Halt Lassa fever in its tracks

Lassa fever, one of this country’s most dreaded contagious diseases, recently resurfaced in several states all at once. It made a deadly appearance at the…

Lassa fever, one of this country’s most dreaded contagious diseases, recently resurfaced in several states all at once. It made a deadly appearance at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital where two patients died and 15 others have been infected. Lassa fever virus is known to be transmitted to human beings who eat food items contaminated with faeces or urine of rodents, mainly infected rats.  Afterwards, any person who has physical contact with a Lassa fever infected person could also be infected. In this way it spreads faster than most other dangerous viruses, perhaps second only to Ebola.

First identified in Lassa community in Borno State in 1969, each time Lassa fever resurfaces in Nigeria, we are reminded of our half-hearted and cosmetic approach to problems which provides the fertile environment for them to germinate and spread out in more ferocious ways. For instance, in 2012 when its outbreak confounded the country with 70 deaths and 623 cases in 19 Northern states, the concern over its spread generated the alarm that should have spurred government and researchers in the health sciences to work on a formidable response to the disease. But we did not. In 2016, the country recorded another alarming outbreak. The World Health Organisation [WHO] said that 273 cases were recorded that year, including 149 deaths in 23 states of the federation. 

In reaction to the frequent outbreaks of Lassa fever, the Federal Government set up the Lassa Fever Eradication Committee in January 2016 headed by a former President of the Nigeria Academy of Sciences, Professor Oyewale Tomori.  The committee, in collaboration with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control [NCDC] was supposed to produce a roadmap for the control and prevention of Lassa fever in Nigeria.  However, it is not clear what came out of the committee’s work. That is why the recent outbreak has caused panic all over the country, especially the fact that some medical personnel who attended to the patients at LUTH also became infected with the virus. 

It is very unfortunate that in Nigeria, there is only one Lassa fever diagnostic centre, which is the Lassa Fever Research and Control Centre, Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital in Edo State. For a deadly disease like Lassa fever this is unacceptable because in other climes, government would have set aside enough funds for research into, not just Lassa fever’s diagnosis but its cure and containment. By now there should have been many such centres spread out in most if not all states of the federation. Though WHO says the disease is prevalent in West Africa, Lassa fever occurs most frequently in Nigeria. It is therefore imperative for this country to take the lead in the effort to find a lasting solution to it. 

We call on the government and the Ministry of Health to work towards setting up Lassa fever diagnostic centres in all tertiary hospitals across the country. The least should be a diagnostic centre in each of the geopolitical zones in the country. Lassa fever is not restricted to one part of Nigeria. Recent reports say the outbreak has occurred in the North-West, North-East, South-West and South-South states. Taking blood samples from North-East all the way to Edo State for laboratory tests takes much time, enough time for the disease to kill patients and also spread to many people who innocently have contact with a Lassa fever infected patient, including health workers. 

Apart from diagnostic centres, government should vigorously educate Nigerians on the need to maintain a clean environment which does not attract rats and other rodents. Cleanliness is a habit and proper education at the grassroots, even in slums in urban areas, would help greatly. Government must not watch Nigerians die cheaply from deadly but preventable diseases every now and then.

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