Nigeria struggling to contain dramatic spread of deadly Lassa fever

Nigeria is currently facing an unprecedented outbreak of Lassa fever, on two fronts: doctors struggling to contain the threat and health watchdogs still can't get a grip on why the deadly virus is spreading so fast.

The outbreak of Lassa fever, a cousin of Ebola, has already claimed the lives of 110 people this year and the Nigeria
Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has recorded 353 confirmed cases since the start of the year, a figure that is more than double the number of confirmed cases (143) for the year 2017.
NCDC director, Chikwe Ihekweazu says a number of reasons could be responsible for this surge. "The harder you look, the more you find," he said, citing a change in the virus's environment, viral mutation -- and better reporting of cases by the public in response to awareness campaigns.

The fact that there is only one unit for treating Lassa fever in the whole country of over 180 million people, highlights the practical difficulties that exist in efforts aimed at tackling the peril.

The Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital in southern Edo State, built in 2008, having just a dozen Nigerian staff and a handful of European tropical medicine specialists, is struggling. But before it was built, suspect blood samples were sent to South Africa for an accurate diagnosis.

Director of the unit, Ephraim Ogbaini-Emovon says only a couple dozen patients are treated yearly but they have admitted more than 150 patients since January.

"Now we have just below 30 patients," Ogbaini-Emovon said. "We never recorded this (in previous years). Facilities are overstretched."

Kevin Ousman, who specialises in combating viral risks at the World Health Organization (WHO), spends his days reminding people of basic protection.

"Change your gloves!" Ousmane orders. "Throw away this water! Don't put this bag on the floor."

"Given the situation we're living here, we are going right down to the basics," Ousmane tells AFP as doctors come and go clad from head to toe in protective suits.

Wilson Oherein, is one of many relatives who are in the clinic to take care of family members being treated. Oherein had lost his wife to Lassa fever a few days earlier after contracting the disease. Their three year old daughter has also contaminated Lassa fever and she was being cared for in the isolation ward at Irrua.
He  usually spends his days at his daughter's bedside taking care of her after which he rests in a half-finished building behind the hospital, with other family members of patients.

Exhausted and lying on a mat on the floor, he tries to convince himself, saying "I will be fine."

"I'm just anxious for my daughter and the mourning of my wife. It knocks me down.

An employee of WHO said: "It's a tradition in Africa for families to take care of their sick. But we have to put a stop to that, it's much too risky."

Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic disease that can be transmitted to humans from infected rat faeces or urine but is less contagious than Ebola, thought it can also be passed from one person to another via contact with infected bodily fluids.


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