Return of Lassa fever and the need for vigilance

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The report that there is a fresh outbreak of Lassa fever should sound a note of warning to the government and the people of Nigeria. As we have all learned, early action against any epidemic is absolutely critical to save lives.

The virulence of Lassa fever is not in doubt. With over 50 deaths recorded in Ondo State as a result of Lassa fever outbreak, residents, as well as medical practitioners, are in panicky mood. It is worrisome that as at press time the epidemic disease has found its way into Plateau, Ebonyi, and most recently Edo state. The return of Lassa fever in the country, especially the pace of the spread of the virus is a grim reminder that epidemics are a threat and that the only way to get this virus under control is through rapid response.

It would be recalled that an outbreak of Lassa fever occurred in Nigeria in 2018 and spread to 18 of the country’s states; it was the largest outbreak of Lassa fever recorded. Between 1st of January through 25th of February 2018, 1081 suspected cases and 90 deaths were reported from 18 states (Anambra, Bauchi, Benue, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Federal Capital Territory, Gombe, Imo, Kogi, Lagos, Nasarawa, Ondo, Osun, Plateau, Rivers, and Taraba).

Lassa fever according to the World Health organisation (WHO) is a viral illness caused by the Lassa fever virus. It is predominantly a disease transmitted directly to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or faeces. Person-to-person infections and laboratory transmission can also occur. Studies have revealed that each year, Lassa fever kills many and leaves most of its survivors with disability, often due to the side effects of the drugs they received.

The Lassa fever virus has so far snowballed into a national emergency. The situation calls for a combined effort of all stakeholders to ensure that we get back into the mode and vigilance that helped us overcome the last outbreak. In the past, the government has been accused of being slow to act in a way commensurate with a major threat to health concerns. As a matter of urgency the government and its agencies at all levels need to hit the ground running. This is the time for government to build confidence and ensure that this latest outbreak does not turn into a major epidemic with huge casualties.

So far, the government through the Chief Executive Officer of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been assuring Nigerians not to panic over the rising cases of Lassa fever. The agency has re-iterated the call for everyone to be vigilant. An emergency centre to coordinate a response has also been set up. The centre includes representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Federal Ministry of Environment, US Centres for Disease Control, as well as other partners.

Following the recent outbreak, stakeholders identified the need for more funding and adequate manpower to cope with the situation. By World Health Organisation (WHO) standard, Nigeria needs at least 300,000 medical doctors to cater for its citizens. More qualified health professionals need to be fast tracked into the sector to ensure that our health care system is not overwhelmed every-time an emergency situation like this arises. Also, due to the absence of vaccines against the virus, the government and relevant institutions need to focus more on funding medical research in the country.

Furthermore, there is need to educate the people on what to do. Public enlighten-ment campaigns need to be taken to market places, churches, mosques and other places so that people will be aware of the mode of transmission of the virus.

For prevention, members of the public are strongly advised to practice good personal hygiene and proper environmental sanitation; always store grains and other foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers, and dispose of garbage far from the home. The public is also advised against bush burning.

In conclusion, the current outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria can be controlled effectively by adopting proper standard precautions in hospitals as well as communities. It is also vital to put in place adequate surveillance health system for disease control and management. But most importantly, educating the public on the need for proper hygiene and environmental sanitation cannot be over-emphasised.

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