Not identified until the late 1960s, Lassa fever hit the West African countries badly last year. Currently an endemic, this disease has the potential to cause dangerous epidemics but there are no vaccines available for it until now! Even many of the health workers who were involved in treating those affected became victims of the disease and died. While the Lassa disease’s normal fatality rate is only 1% last year’s outbreak confirmed more than 20% fatality rates among the total affected population.
Lassa fever is categorized as a zoonotic disease as humans are affected due to contact with infected animals. The Mastomys rats are carriers of the Lassa virus which do not become ill due to the virus but spread the virus via their feces and urine to humans. Commonly known as the ‘multimammate rats’ they are commonly found across West Africa and are smart enough to find their way to people’s homes. Its very common for people to be affected by Lassa fever through anything that’s contaminated with the rat’s saliva, blood or excreta. It can be through eating, drinking or simply by handling contaminated objects. The virus can also be transmitted via bodily fluids such as direct contact with blood, urine, saliva or other such fluid secretions of a person infected with the Lassa fever. Airborne expression of the disease is not evident till date, but the virus can spread via re-used needles, sexual transmission and when people tend to the needs of the affected individuals without proper protection.
Lassa fever can affect anyone of any age group irrespective of the gender. Incubation period is usually anywhere up to 3 weeks. Symptoms show up gradually starting with fever and weakness and proceeding to headache, sore throat, muscle pain, chest pain, cough, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Extreme manifestation of the virus presents itself with symptoms such as facial swelling, fluid in lung cavity, bleeding in nose, vagina or mouth and low blood pressure.
Seizures and coma are also experienced by few patients in advanced stages. Sadly, Lassa disease leaves 25% of the patients with deafness out of which almost 50% of them recover with partial hearing after 3 months or so. If death is the result, it happens within 14 days of the onset of the disease. Pregnant women who are detected with Lassa fever during later stages of pregnancy are at a higher risk of maternal deaths and/or fetal loss that’s common 80% of the time.
Diagnosis & Treatment
There is no symptom that’s extremely specific to Lassa fever and this makes it difficult to diagnose, especially in the initial stages of the disease. The symptoms are common to other viral diseases such as Ebola (researchers are trying to find out if the virus can be passed through sexual contact as in Ebola even after the illness is cured) virus disease and others such as malaria, typhoid, jaundice and shigellosis. A lab testing can confirm the disease’s presence. Read more about Ebola and its devastating effects on human life at www.firsteatright.com.
Treatment usually involves early administration of ribavirin drug.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness” and the prevention measures for Lassa disease include just the same. Keeping your house clean, disposing garbage somewhere away from the residence, storing grains and other edibles in rodent-proof containers and growing cats as pets (which keep rats away from the house) and promoting hygiene of the community are sure-shot ways to stay protective. The problem with Lassa disease is that the Mastomys rats are abundant in endemic areas and its not possible to get rid of them completely. All that we can do is take preventive measures and be careful while attending a sick person avoiding contact with their blood or body fluids.
Healthcare workers tending to Lassa patients must wear face masks, long gowns and gloves. Its possible for travelers returning from Lassa-prone areas to export the disease to other countries. Finding vaccines for the disease is possible which could reduce death tolls and impact significantly. The problem here is that, diseases such as Lassa fever are mostly present in poor countries which lack the necessary economy and technology to find solutions.
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.