The Silent Threat: Lassa Fever's Deadly Grip

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Learn about the devastating impact of Lassa fever in West Africa, its origins, transmission, and the urgent need for diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines to combat this neglected disease.

Lassa Fever's Deadly Grip

Sitting on a bench outside the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (ISTH) in Edo state, southwestern Nigeria, Muhammed Luqman Dagana recounted his harrowing ordeal with Lassa fever. In September 2023, he shared his story of battling this deadly hemorrhagic disease, which first manifested as a seemingly innocuous fever, headache, body aches, and cough. Initially misdiagnosed and mistreated, his condition rapidly deteriorated until he was finally diagnosed and transferred to the hospital's high-containment isolation ward.

Dagana's experience is not unique. Lassa fever, identified only half a century ago, affects the rural poor who live far from health centers. It is transmitted primarily through contact with infected rodents or their bodily fluids, but it can also spread from person to person. Despite its high mortality rate, Lassa fever has been largely ignored until recently.

In 2018, a record-shattering epidemic in Nigeria prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Nigerian government to declare a public health emergency. Since then, cases have continued to climb, with infections occurring year-round and spreading beyond the four known endemic countries.

Efforts to combat Lassa fever have intensified, with several groups working on diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has named Lassa fever one of its priority diseases, investing in vaccine development and funding studies to determine the true burden of the disease.

Genomic studies have revealed the ancient origins and genetic diversity of the Lassa virus, with seven distinct lineages identified so far. Understanding these genetic variations is crucial for developing effective countermeasures.

Despite progress in diagnostics and treatment, challenges remain. Limited surveillance and testing obscure the true incidence of infection, and access to affordable treatments and vaccines is a concern. Nigeria has made strides in reducing the death rate, but the overall fatality rate remains unacceptably high.

As cases of Lassa fever continue to rise, there is an urgent need for sustained efforts to combat this neglected disease. Improved surveillance, access to diagnostics and treatments, and continued research into the virus's genetic diversity are essential to preventing future outbreaks and saving lives.

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