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Lassa fever: Why Death Toll is Rising in Nigeria

There are fears that with the rising death toll from Lassa fever in Edo State, 2019 might be a turning point in the narrative of the disease in Nigeria as government has not shown much capacity to deal with the situation. Lassa fever, also known as Lassa hemorrhagic fever, a type of viral hemorrhagic fever caused by the Lassa virus, often spread by rats and through human-to-human contact, has continued to pose a difficult challenge to health authorities around the country amid hopes for a permanent eradication.

Nefisat Ikerodah, director of Disease Surveillance, Etsako West Local Government Area, Edo State, disclosed on Monday, April 1, 2019, that 12 people died from Lassa fever in the area between January and March. Available data also indicate that 871 cases of the disease were recorded in the area during the period. According to the director, many of the patients have been treated and discharged from hospital, while some are still receiving treatment at the Irrua Specialist Hospital.

Ikerodah said, “A total of 871 persons were diagnosed with Lassa fever between January and March in the local government. Twelve deaths have so far been recorded. Edo State has the highest number of persons infected with the disease, with Etsako-West identified as the worst hit.” She noted that Jattu, Afashio and Ikabigbo communities in Uzairue had the highest number of Lassa fever infections.

The death toll from Lassa fever in the country, according to official figures from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, was put at 93, in the weekly situation update of March 3. The NCDC stated that a total of 1,374 suspected cases and 93 deaths were reported across 21 states including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The states are Edo, Ondo, Bauchi, Nasarawa, Ebonyi, Plateau, Taraba, Adamawa, Gombe, Kaduna, Kwara, Benue, Rivers, Kogi, Enugu, Imo, Delta, Oyo, Kebbi and Cross River.

This was shortly after an earlier declaration by the director-general of the NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, who said there has been a steady decline compared to the 2018 outbreak. He noted that there was a pattern with the number of confirmed cases and deaths reported across the country. For instance, in one week, the centre confirmed 39 cases in six states with eight new deaths: Edo, five; Ondo, two; and Kogi, one.

Ikerodah stressed that the local government area has moved to tighten awareness about the disease and methods of prevention, including greater hygiene and cleanliness of the environment.

“We are teaching our people to exude clean environmental culture, ensure vigilance and avoid contact with rats. The council has declared a state of emergency on Lassa fever epidemic, following the number of persons that have already contacted it,” she said, emphasizing that the local government has resolved to sustain the tempo of surveillance to stop the epidemic.

Many analysts have criticised government’s approach to the outbreak, which has become an annual problem, saying health officials approach Lassa fever on an ad-hoc basis, failing to foresee and prevent the next outbreak. The World Health Organization, WHO, officer for Nigeria, Clement Peter, said the organization would continue to help affected states by strengthening their capacity to monitor the disease, treat patients, implement infection prevention and control measures, laboratory diagnostics and engage with communities.

“WHO has mobilised $400,000 to support response activities and deployed experts to Nigeria and affected states to assist with coordination, active surveillance, case management, laboratory investigation, provision of supplies and research.”

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