Lassa Fever Could Build Into An African Epidemic

Lassa fever is viral infection which was first discovered in the late 1960’s in West Africa. The virus which causes the illness was named Lassa, after the village where the first disease cases where identified. This is an animal-borne virus and is caused by an RNA virus called arenaviridae.

In areas of Africa where Lassa fever is a constant presence, there are occasional outbreaks where the death toll from it can climb. This is due mainly because the people who contract it already have compromised immune systems from fighting off a number of other diseases in the area. On the whole, Lassa is fairly mild and many people don’t show any symptoms. However about 15-20% of the people who do get it are already ill with something else and will present symptoms of the disease.

Infection and Location

West Africa regions are the primary areas where Lassa fever is mostly found. However, because rodents often carry the virus, the disease may be found beyond this region. Each year up to 250-300,000 people are infected with Lassa and up to 10,000 people die from it. Reports from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that up to 20% of the patients admitted to local clinics and hospitals have this disease which shows just how prevalent Lassa really is.

The primary carrier of the Lassafever virus is a local rodent which is plentiful on the savanna ranges as well as the tropical forest areas of Africa. They produce a lot of babies each year and often find their way to the homes of people who live in the area. These rodents urinate and leave droppings which contain the virus. It can be quite easy for humans to come in contact with the droppings and urine through touching items with these substances. Food and water sources could also become contaminated as well. These are the reasons why the disease continues to keep a foothold in the region.

Lassa fever can also be transmitted from person to person as well. It takes direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, mucus, semen, saliva and more in order for infection to occur. Casual contact like hugs or even touching would not spread the disease.

Symptoms and Treatment Options

Once exposure to the virus is made, symptoms can take up to three weeks to develop. Fever, chest pain, coughing, stomach pain, back aches, bleeding from mucosal areas, diarrhea, vomiting and swelling of the face are common. Tremors, encephalitis and even hearing loss have been reported as well. Each infected person may present different symptoms which makes initial diagnosis difficult without a blood test.

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Treatment usually consists of antiviral medications like Ribavirin. However, it is most effective when given early on in the illness. Hospitalization may be necessary so that IV fluids may be given to restore hydration and electrolyte balance in addition to monitoring of blood pressure and giving additional oxygen when necessary. Some people report permanent hearing loss after recovering from Lassa fever and some pregnant mothers may spontaneous abort their babies.

If you plan to travel in areas where the Lassa carrying rodent lives, you will have to take precautions with your living quarters in addition to ensuring that your clothing, eating utensils and more are kept clean to prevent contamination from rodent urine and droppings.