Lassa fever prevention failing

Medical officials in a rural hospital say efforts to prevent outbreaks of Lassa fever, a hard-to treat-disease transmitted by rats, are failing because of a lack of investment in health services and public information.

"There are a few health talks and jingles on the radio, but not enough awareness about Lassa fever. Prevention is important because the prognosis of the disease is not very good,” said Jefferson Sibley, a specialist in viral diseases at Phebe Hospital in Bong county, northern Liberia.

Last year, around a quarter of the people treated for Lassa fever at Phebe Hospital died, Sibley said. “It's a serious illness and people need to be more aware of how to prevent it.”

Lassa fever, a viral haemorrhagic fever that is endemic in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and parts of Nigeria, typically hits Liberia two to three times a year. It last broke out here in November 2007.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 300,000 to 500,000 cases of Lassa fever and 5,000 deaths occur yearly across West Africa.

Prevention challenges

If treated in time, around two thirds of patients survive, although many suffer from persistent health issues including deafness.

Laurence Deemie, a laboratory technician at Phebe Hospital, said rural hospitals are not equipped with the technology to diagnose the disease and are forced to send blood samples to Monrovia for confirmation – a process that can take weeks.

Sibley said unless more is done to educate rural communities about the disease, he fears Lassa fever outbreaks will persist.

"Many people refuse to stop eating rat meat because they have been eating it for years. It would be great if everyone would say, 'I don't need to eat that little rat if it means I'm going to die.'"

A spokesman for the WHO said no international non-governmental organisations (NGO) are currently conducting awareness sessions on Lassa fever in Liberia, although the European Union and World Health Organisation has established a care unit for patients in Gbarnga, 170 km from Monrovia. .

Because the initial symptoms are similar to those of malaria, diagnosing Lassa fever can be difficult.

Symptoms include headache, sore throat, muscle pain, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and cough. Severe cases may progress to bleeding from the mouth, nose, vagina or gastrointestinal tract.

The disease is largely confined to rural areas and is spread by contact with the excrement of rats or by eating rodent meat – common in communities where meat is scarce.

Once infected, a person remains contagious for weeks and can pass the disease on to others through bodily fluids or sexual contact.

The illness is especially severe late in pregnancy, with fetal loss and sometimes maternal death occurring in more than 80 percent of cases.

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