The Scourge of Lassa Fever

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Mastony rat
Mastony rat

Health experts stress the need for public enlightenment campaign on the menace of lassa fever following the report of an outbreak in Benue and Plateau States

|  By Augustine Adah  |  Feb. 11, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

FOLLOWING the recent outbreak of lassa fever epidemic in Benue and Plateau states, the Lagos State government has warned Lagosians  of the danger of allowing rodents into living homes. Jide Idris, commissioner for health, Lagos State, last week, urged residents of Lagos to maintain a clean environment and avoid contact with rodents that spread the virus. Though the outbreak of the disease has not been reported in the state, Idris stated that the government has the necessary facilities to handle the epidemic in case of its outbreak.

Onyebuchi Chukwu
Onyebuchi Chukwu

The outbreak of the disease has led to the death of three persons including a medical doctor, in Markurdi, capital of Benue State. Similar outbreak in Plateau State led to the death of two persons.  The two cases happened barely 11 months after a similar outbreak of the disease in about 19 states of the federation in which 80 persons were killed. Unlike in the past, the federal government has also acted swiftly to counter any likelihood of an outbreak.

Onyebuchi Chukwu, minister of health, said the federal ministry of health, had immediately sent experts from Centre for Disease Control, CDC, Abuja, to Benue State, to investigate the outbreak. The quick response demonstrated by the government was to forestall the spread of the disease to other parts of the country.

Even at that, medical experts are not happy that the federal government has not done enough to sensitise the people about the disease. For example, the Nigerian Veterinary Medical Association, NVMA, has expressed its displeasure over the manner the outbreak of the disease was handled in the past. Ganiyu Enahoro, national president, NVMA, accused the committee set up by the federal government of not doing enough to enlighten the people about the epidemic.  The failure has led to people’s ignorance about the disease and the precautionary measures needed to be adopted.

The veterinary expert suggested that the community health workers from the states’ ministry of health and local government councils should to be mandated to go out into the streets and inspect surroundings of living quarters and compel people to clean their environment. Such measures, according to Enahoro, would reduce the menace of rats and rodents. He traced the outbreak of the disease at this time of the year to the activities of farmers who are in the habit of burning bushes in preparation for the farming season.

“The traditional methods of preparing farm lands by bush burning also create a very harsh environment for the rats and other dangerous rodents that are harbingers of Lassa virus. For this reason, the rodents are forced to seek new shelters in living homes and settle in the kitchens,” Enahoro said.

Patients of Lassa Fever receiving treatment
Patients of Lassa Fever receiving treatment

Similarly, Kola Oyedepo, public health administrator, based in Ilorin, Kwara State  said: “Many people heard the name of lassa fever for the time, when the epidemic broke out last year.” He urged the government and health experts in the country to always embark on  public enlightenment campaign among people living in the rural areas. The campaign, he said, should educate them about the virus and how to avoid contact with the specie of rats that transmit the deadly virus to the human body through food and other consumable items.

Lassa fever, an acute viral illness transmitted by mastomy rodents, was discovered in 1969 when two missionary nurses died in Nigeria. The cause of the illness was found to be Lassa virus, named after the town in Borno State where the first cases originated. In some countries where the disease is endemic, lassa fever is the significant cause of morbidity and mortality.

Signs and symptoms of lassa fever typically occur one to three weeks after the patient comes in contact with the virus. These include fever, retrosternal pain (pain behind the chest wall), sore throat, back pain, cough, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, facial swelling, proteinuria [protein in the urine), and mucosal bleeding. There are also associated, neurological problems which include hearing loss, tremors, and encephalitis.

The primary transmission of the Lassa virus from its host to humans can be prevented by avoiding contact with mastomy rodents, especially in the areas where outbreaks occur. Putting food away in rodent-proof containers and keeping the home clean help to discourage rodents from entering homes. Using these rodents as a food is not recommended. Trapping in and around homes can help reduce rodent populations.

However, the wide distribution of mastomy rodents in Africa, makes complete control of this rodent reservoir impossible. Ribavirin, an antiviral drug, has been used with success in lassa fever patients. It has been shown to be most effective when given early in the course of the illness.

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