Tracking West Africa’s Lassa Fever Outbreak

Click the map above to explore Lassa fever outbreaks in West Africa. (Map by Andrew Schroeder/Direct Relief)

Since the end of December, the countries of Liberia and Nigeria in West Africa have experienced significant outbreaks of the viral hemorrhagic disease Lassa fever.

Nigeria’s outbreak is the largest in that country in almost 50 years, with 102 people killed in just over four months. Liberia’s outbreak is growing fast as well, with 69 total suspected cases and 19 deaths distributed over six counties through the midsection of the country, and 25 of those cases, or 36 percent, have been detected just in the past month. At a case fatality rate of over 28 percent, concerns are growing that Lassa fever may soon become a significant public health emergency.

The virus that causes Lassa fever spreads primarily through human contact with a species of rodent that lives primarily in West Africa. The disease may also spread, however, through direct contact with body fluids of infected persons. Healthcare workers are at particular risk, with 27 confirmed in Nigeria to have been infected in the current outbreak. Personal protective equipment is extremely important in treatment and infection control efforts.

Direct Relief’s partner ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, is seeing suspected Lassa fever patients and has engaged elevated infection control protocols, including expanded use of protective equipment for clinical staff.

Patients infected with Lassa become symptomatic roughly six to 21 days after initial exposure. The first stages of the disease express like many other viral fevers, with elevated temperature as well as body aches, vomiting, diarrhea and cough. If the disease goes untreated, it can enter an acute phase which results often in bleeding from the nose, mouth, vaginal tissues and other areas, with significant risk of death after 14 days.

Although there is no vaccination available for Lassa fever, it may be effectively treated with aggressive hydration, especially early in the disease, and administration of the antiviral drug Ribavirin.

Direct Relief maintains active partnerships throughout the affected area and will continue to monitor the situation to determine possible expanded needs for support.