Outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria by the Honourable Minister of Health
Signs and symptoms
In 80% of cases, the disease is asymptomatic, but in the remaining 20%, it takes a complicated course. The virus is estimated to be responsible for about 5,000 deaths annually. The fever accounts for up to one-third of deaths in hospitals within the affected regions and 10 to 16% of total cases.
After an incubation period of six to 21 days, an acute illness with multiorgan involvement develops. Nonspecific symptoms include fever, facial swelling, and muscle fatigue, as well as conjunctivitis and mucosal bleeding. The other symptoms arising from the affected organs are:
· Diarrhea (bloody)
· Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
· Tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate)
· Chest pain
· Unilateral or bilateral hearing deficit
The virus is excreted in urine for 3–9 weeks and in semen for three months.
Mastomys natalensis, the natural reservoir of the Lassa fever virus
Lassa virus is zoonotic (transmitted from animals), in that it spreads to humans from rodents, specifically multimammate mice (Mastomys natalensis). This is probably the most common mouse in equatorial Africa, ubiquitous in human households and eaten as a delicacy in some areas. In these rodents, infection is in a persistent asymptomatic state. The virus is shed in their excreta (urine and feces), which can be aerosolized. In fatal cases, Lassa fever is characterized by impaired or delayed cellular immunity leading to fulminant viremia.
Infection in humans typically occurs by exposure to animal excrement through the respiratory orgastrointestinal tracts. Inhalation of tiny particles of infectious material (aerosol) is believed to be the most significant means of exposure. It is possible to acquire the infection through broken skin ormucous membranes that are directly exposed to infectious material. Transmission from person to person has also been established, presenting a disease risk for healthcare workers. The virus is still present in the urine of someone who was infected between 3 and 9 weeks after he or she became ill, and men can transmit the virus via semen for up to 3 months after being infected.
A range of laboratory investigations are performed to diagnose the disease and assess its course and complications. An ELISA test for antigen and IgM antibodies give 88% sensitivity and 90% specificity for the presence of the infection. Other laboratory findings in Lassa fever include lymphopenia (low white blood cell count), thrombocytopenia (low platelets), and elevated aspartate aminotransferase levels in the blood. Lassa fever virus can also be found in cerebrospinal fluid. In West Africa, where Lassa is most prevalent, it is difficult for doctors to diagnose due to the absence of proper equipment to perform tests. In cases with abdominal pain, diagnoses in countries where Lassa is common are often made for other illnesses, such as appendicitis and intussusception, delaying treatment with ribavirin.
Community education material for Lassa fever
Control of the Mastomys rodent population is impractical, so measures are limited to keeping rodents out of homes and food supplies, as well as maintaining effective personal hygiene. Gloves, masks, laboratory coats, and goggles are advised while in contact with an infected person. These issues in many countries are monitored by a department of public health. In less developed countries, these types of organizations may not have the necessary means to effectively control outbreaks.
Researchers at the USAMRIID facility, where military biologists study infectious diseases, have a promising vaccine candidate. They have developed a replication-competent vaccine against Lassa virus based on recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus vectors expressing the Lassa virus glycoprotein. After a single intramuscular injection, test primates have survived lethal challenge, while showing no clinical symptoms.
All persons suspected of Lassa fever infection should be admitted to isolation facilities and their body fluids and excreta properly disposed of. Early and aggressive treatment using ribavirin was pioneered by Joe McCormick in 1979. After extensive testing, early administration was determined to be critical to success. Additionally, ribavirin is almost twice as effective when given intravenously as when taken by mouth. Ribavirin is a prodrug which appears to interfere with viral replication by inhibiting RNA-dependent nucleic acid synthesis, although the precise mechanism of action is disputed. The drug is relatively inexpensive, but the cost of the drug is still very high for many of those in West African states. Fluid replacement, blood transfusion, and fighting hypotension are usually required. Intravenousinterferon therapy has also been used.
When Lassa fever infects pregnant women late in their third trimester, induction of delivery is necessary for the mother to have a good chance of survival. This is because the virus has an affinity for the placenta and other highly vascular tissues. The fetus has only a one in ten chance of survival no matter what course of action is taken; hence, the focus is always on saving the life of the mother. Following delivery, women should receive the same treatment as other Lassa fever patients.
Work on a vaccine is continuing, with multiple approaches showing positive results in animal trials.
About 15-20% of hospitalized Lassa fever patients will die from the illness. The overall mortality rate is estimated to be 1%, but duringepidemics, mortality can climb as high as 50%. The mortality rate is greater than 80% when it occurs in pregnant women during their third trimester; fetal death also occurs in nearly all those cases. Abortion decreases the risk of death to the mother. Some survivors experience lasting effects of the disease.
Because of treatment with ribavirin, fatality rates are continuing to decline