In 2016, the WHO announced that Lassa fever would be categorized as one of its six most dangerous infectious diseases, meaning people should take extreme care not to contract the condition. This is because there are still no specific treatments available to cure the disease. Only the symptoms can be successfully treated. All that infected patients can do is to get plenty of rest until their condition improves. As a result, the most effective form of protection is to prevent against becoming infected in the first place.
The first reported case was in Nigeria in 1969, with the disease being found to be spread by rodents transferring the disease to humans, although the disease can also be passed from humans to humans. After this initial first case, the disease began to spread rapidly to numerous countries in West Africa, with the condition now classified as an infectious disease that poses a threat to everyone of any age or gender.
Lassa hemorrhagic fever (LHF) is a form of hemorrhagic fever caused by an arenavirus strain. The condition differs from Dengue fever in that the carriers of the disease are not mosquitoes but rodents. The disease is spread by contact with the virus found in the fur particles, breath and urine or feces of infected rodents. Eating unhygienic foods or drinking contaminated liquids are also risk factors. Moreover, laboratory mistakes or low hospital standards – such as contamination of syringes used on repeat occasions or contact with body fluids, urine or feces of infected patients – can also be responsible for the continued spread of Lassa fever. This virus has an incubation period of between 7-21 days.
The symptoms are generally not severe and include a low fever, exhaustion and headaches. In severe cases, however, patients may experience a high fever, vomiting, chest pains, headaches, swollen face and body, swollen lymph gland in the neck, difficulty breathing and abnormal bleeding, such as bleeding from the mouth, nose and gastrointestinal tract. The condition can also affect the central nervous system or it may lead the patient to go into shock and death.
Lassa fever is carried out by screening the patient’s blood for antibodies containing the virus as well as conducting a urine analysis.
Treating Lassa fever
Lassa fever involves providing care and support for the patient’s symptoms as well as offering Ribavirin antiviral drugs, which are most effective when used during the initial stages of the disease.
There are no vaccinations available against this disease. The most effective way to protect against Lassa fever is to maintain high levels of personal hygiene, including for those around you and close relationships. Always be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, only eat foods that are properly cooked, avoid eating where contamination is possible and ensure your home is kept clean, especially with regard to the limiting of rodents as these are carriers of the disease.
Although Lassa fever is categorized as a form of hemorrhagic fever, there have been no targeted studies carried out on each age group. The disease may be asymptomatic or display symptoms similar to dengue fever and rabies, meaning that in severe cases hemorrhaging blood, shock and death are distinct possibilities.
Studies into the disease carried out in Nigeria found that up to 50% of those admitted to hospital with Lassa fever lost their lives, while the rate of fatalities among children sufferers was 23%. Furthermore, it was also found that the rate of fatalities among newborn was as high as 87% and attributed to the mother contracting the disease.
Hence, if you are planning on travelling to countries or areas that are at risk of a Lassa fever outbreak, be sure to make appropriate preparations. Such planning includes consulting with a doctor before you travel, being disciplined about personal hygiene as well as taking extreme care when drinking and eating, meaning that you ensure your food is properly cooked and free from contamination before eating.
Additionally, when returning home, be sure to keep an eye out for any irregular symptoms in yourself and those close to you. If any such irregularities do occur, do not hesitate to seek medical attention in order to undergo a thorough diagnosis of your condition.
M.D., Faculty of Medicine, Mahidol University, 2000.