Over the past 3-4 years, we’ve encountered Ebola virus , then came Zika virus and now it’s Lassa Fever. The name Lassa is a town in Bornu State, Nigeria, where the virus was first isolated after the death of 2 missionary nurses in 1969 hence the name Lassa Virus.
Lassa fever is also a zoonotic infection (animal-borne disease). The virus comes from a group of viruses known to cause haemorrhagic fever. Haemorrhagic fever is a multisystem syndrome which affects several organs in the body and causes an overall interruption in the way the body regulates itself.
The virus is known to be geographically restricted to West Africa hence less or no records in other parts of the continent. The first case of Lassa fever in Ghana was recorded in late 2011.
Currently, one confirmed case has died from lassa fever in the latter part of February, at the Tema General Hospital.
It is therefore incumbent for every Ghanaian to equip him or herself with the knowledge of the disease so that we can be safe from the ugly hands of this disease.
In this article, I share with you, the mode of transmission of the virus, the cardinal signs and symptoms, and how together we can protect ourselves from the disease.
How is Lassa Fever Transmitted?
The host of the virus is the multimammate rat which is noted to be prevalent in West Africa. These rats are able to keep the virus throughout their life time and they release the virus in their droppings and urine.
Essentially, lassa fever is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with the urine, saliva, faeces, and blood of infected rodents.
Human to human transmission is mainly through contact with body fluids and blood of infected persons. There is no epidemiological evidence supporting airborne spread between humans. However, Sexual transmission of the virus among humans have been reported (WHO, 2018).
Which People are More Vulnerable to Lassa Fever?
- Persons living in rural areas with poor sanitation and overly populated regions.
- Health care and laboratory professionals in affected areas.
- Family members of infected patients.
NB:// Hospital staff are not at great risk for infection as long as protective measures and proper sterilization methods are used.
Signs and Symptoms of Lassa Fever
The incubation period of the virus is typically between 2-21 days. Early symptoms of the disease include
- General malaise
This maybe followed by
- Sore throat
- Abdominal pains and sometimes diarrhoea
In extreme cases facial swelling, fluid in the lung cavity, bleeding from the mouth, nose, vagina or gastrointestinal tract and low blood pressure may develop.
In the index case reported, Blood in the vomit was recorded.
How is Lassa Fever Diagnosed?
Due to the nonspecific and varied nature of the symptoms of Lassa fever, routine diagnosis is normally difficult. Also, it a quite a challenge to distinguish Lassa fever from other haemorrhagic fever like Ebola Marburg and other diseases that causes fever like malaria and typhoid fever.
That notwithstanding, definitive diagnosis is only accessible in reference laboratories such as Noguchi in Ghana. Samples must be handled with extreme care since they may be hazardous.
Its advicable that cases of Lassa Fever are worked on under biosafety level 4 containments.
Is there Treatment for Lassa Fever?
The main known antiviral drug for treatment is Ribavirin which when taken after early detection is known to be very effective.
As at now, there is no established evidence as to whether ribavirin is effective for post-exposure prophylaxis.
Also, there is no vaccine for Lassa Fever as of now.
How Can We Protect Ourselves From Lassa Fever?
- We must put food items in rodent-proof containers and keep our homes clean in order to discourage rodents from entering our homes.
- We should avoid using rodents as food source.
- Avoid contact with the secretions or excretions of the possibly infected.
A Key Note To Health Workers
Health workers must understand that, further transmission of the disease through person-to-person contact or nosocomial routes can be avoided by taking preventive precautions against contact with patient secretions (called VHF isolation precautions or barrier nursing methods).
Such precautions include:
- Wearing protective clothing, such as masks, gloves, gowns, and goggles
- Using infection control measures, such as complete equipment sterilization; and isolating infected patients from contact with unprotected persons until the disease has run its course.
- Safe injection practices
- Safe laboratory handling by working in the right biosafety containment level
- Safe monitoring procedures.
To effectively reduce any surge in the number of lassa fever cases, education on the disease must be intensified