For the past few weeks, Nigeria has, once again, been confronted with another outbreak of Lassa fever which has killed over 60 people out of 212 suspected cases across 64 local government areas in 17 states of the country. These figures could soon escalate as there are strong indications that the outbreak may claim the lives of more people before it is eventually contained. The Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, warned that the outbreak could kill up to 1,000 people.
The current outbreak, according to the health minister, was traced to incidences of the disease in August 2015 at Foka Village in Niger State which killed about 17 villagers in quick succession. Sadly, these occurrences were not reported to the appropriate health authorities or the state government for proper containment action because of the villagers’ superstitious beliefs. Prof. Adewole cited this reticence of the villagers as the catalyst behind the current outbreak as it is now difficult to do proper contact tracing of all those who came in contact with the victims of the disease at Foka Village.
Beyond the minister’s observations, however, is a more worrisome issue. The recent outbreak of the disease is only the latest in a string of outbreaks that have become almost an annual occurrence and resulting in needless deaths. According to the WHO, Lassa fever, an infectious disease which virus was first identified in 1969 in a town called Lassa in the present day Borno State, is an endemic disease in West Africa, and it kills about 5000 people annually.
Considering how much knowledge is available on the preventive measures and treatment options for this disease, it is quite sad and unacceptable that Nigeria loses hundreds of her citizens to this condition annually. Indeed, it is inexcusable that rather than being proactive in preventing such incidents, as well as providing a standard template for ensuring a swift and well-coordinated response in the unfortunate event of an outbreak, Nigeria’s reaction to this particular outbreak has been so dismal and disjointed. This is unacceptable.
A glaring testament to the nation’s ill-preparedness for the disease was the belated decision of the health minister to hurriedly convey an emergency National Council on Health (NCH) meeting which he said was aimed at facilitating discussions on the control of the Lassa fever outbreak and developing strategies for prevention and management of all cases in Nigeria. This was after over 40 people had died. Again, this is lamentable.
While the minister’s intention in itself was laudable, the timing was unjustifiably poor. It is our belief that considering the fact that Lassa fever is not a new disease like Ebola, this meeting should have been held long before now.
A nation as diverse as Nigeria should have a national response strategy for disease outbreak which should be automatically activated once there is an outbreak of a highly infectious disease like Lassa fever. It is imperative to strengthen the nation’s National Centre for Disease Control to ensure this important agency is able to deliver on its mandate of helping to prevent disease outbreaks and needless deaths of Nigerians from conditions like Lassa fever that are preventable and treatable.
It is also important that Nigerians themselves are orientated to pay more attention to disease prevention. The health ministry must leave no stone unturned in ensuring that Nigerians are enlightened about strategies to adopt to prevent diseases because prevention is cheaper and better than cure. For Lassa fever, which is caused primarily by exposure to infected multimammate rats (the main vector) that can contaminate food and household utensils through their urine and faeces, it is imperative to educate Nigerians that the improved personal hygiene measures that served the nation so well during the Ebola virus disease outbreak should not be discarded.
Nigerians should also be enlightened that environmental fumigation to get rid of rats and other pests will help in preventing Lassa fever and other diseases, while prompt and proper treatment of those infected can go a long way in preventing further infection of other people through bodily fluids of infected patients. Health care givers should also take precautions when tending to patients to avoid getting infected inadvertently.
The good news is that unlike Ebola, Lassa fever can be treated as there are antibiotics that have proven effective in its treatment. Most importantly, however, the Nigerian nation must take adequate steps that will ensure that we do not have Lassa fever outbreak again in the country because it is possible.