It is reported that about forty people have died across the country from the outbreak of Lassa fever in the last seven weeks. So far, about 397 cases have been reported butonly 87 cases have been positively confirmed by medical officials.  These cases have been reported in 12 states: Edo, Nasarawa, Plateau, Ebonyi, Taraba, Yobe, Ondo, Rivers, Gombe, Anambra, Delta and Lagos.

Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagicfever that was first described in 1969 in Lassa in Borno state, Nigeria.  It is common in West African countries and about 300,000 to 500,000 cases are reported annually with about 5,000 of those cases resulting in death.

Lassa fever is spread through the urine and faeces of infected rats who gain access to food and grain stores.  The virus is shed in their faeces and urine, and when humans are exposed to the excrement through inhalation of airborne particles or ingestion of contaminated food, they become infected.  The virus can also be acquired through broken skin, if there's contact between the broken skin and infected rat urine or faeces.

The virus affects almost every tissue, starting from the intestine, lungs and urinary system and then spreads to the blood.  Infection may be from rats to man, or from man to man through direct contact with the blood, urine or faeces of an infected individual.  There is speculation about whether it can be transmitted sexually, though there's little evidence to prove it.

About 15% to 20% of patients hospitalized with Lassa fever die from the disease and over 80% of pregnant women who contract the disease in their 3rd trimester will also die, with resultant foetal death.
The symptoms of this disease are absent in a good number of cases, and when symptoms are present, they may be non-specific, with many organs being involved.  These symptoms may include fever, general body weakness, facial swelling, cough, difficulty in breathing, chest pain, fast heart rate, low blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures, and bleeding from the nose, mouth and vagina.  In some cases, temporary deafness may occur.  The disease shares many symptoms with other ailments like Typhoid fever and Malaria, so when it is suspected, tests are carried out to give a definitive diagnosis.

It is imperative that the disease is prevented as much as possible by practising good hygeine, storing food and grains in rodent proof containers, avoiding overcrowding, and disposing garbage far away from the home.  Prevention is generally aimed at keeping rats away from the home as much as possible. It is also very important that people caring for people infected by Lassa fever protect themselves with gloves and face masks to avoid contact with the blood, urine and faeces of infected individuals.

Treatment of this condition with an antiviral Ribavirin is successful in a good number of cases, especially there is early detection.

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This article was first published on 28th February 2012 and updated on March 22nd, 2012 at 12:56 pm

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