GENEVA - The World Health Organization reports it is scaling up efforts to try to control an outbreak of Lassa fever, which is escalating at a rapid pace.
Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness that occurs after human exposure to the urine or feces of infected Mastomys rats. It is also transmitted person to person. About 80 percent of those infected show no symptoms. The disease can be effectively treated in its early stages with the antiviral drug Ribavirin.
West Africa is in the midst of a seasonal outbreak, which usually flares between December and March. The disease is endemic in the region so, the current outbreak was expected. But, WHO spokesman Tarek Jasarevic says what is alarming is the scale and speed with which the disease is spreading.
“Right now, since the beginning of the outbreak until now, we already have one-third of the number of cases that we had last year," said Jasarevic. "And already last year was the biggest Lassa fever outbreak. So, basically, we are seeing more cases than usual.”
Nigeria declared an outbreak on January 22. The disease so far has affected 16 states. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control confirms 213 cases, including 42 deaths in what is seen as the largest outbreak in West Africa.
While Nigeria is the source of the most anxiety, WHO reports a total of 12 cases, including two deaths have been confirmed in Benin, Guinea, Liberia and Togo, with more suspected cases being investigated.
Jasarevic says the Lassa fever season is expected to last another four months. He tells VOA it is crucial that communities take certain preventive hygienic measures.
“For example, to store grain and other food in rodent-proof containers, disposing of garbage far from their home, maintaining clean households and keeping cats," said Jasarevic. "Because this particular type of rat is abundant in endemic areas, it is not really possible to completely eliminate them from the environment.”
Jasarevic says the WHO is intensifying its technical assistance, enhancing surveillance, and mobilizing experts to the region to support case management and infection prevention and control. He says the agency is also supporting prevention and readiness activities in six other countries at risk of outbreaks.