The Next Global Health Emergency? What Is Lassa Fever?

Doyin Odubanjo

The Nigerian Academy of Science has called for the current outbreak of Lassa fever in Africa’s most populous nation to be declared a national health emergency because of its severity. Adejuwon Soyinka asked Dr Doyin Odubanjo to unpack the background.

How serious is the current Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria?

It is serious enough given the worsening trend. It has spread from just two states when it was first diagnosed in 1969 to 23 states in 2019. The situation has increasingly got worse over the years. In 2018, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control reported the largest ever number of cases in Nigeria, with over 600 confirmed cases and over 170 deaths.

And the numbers have continued to rise. An alarm was raised over the tripling of the number of suspected cases between 2017 and 2018 only for the reported number of suspected cases to rise in 2019.

Outbreaks have historically occurred during the dry season – November to April. But in recent years there have also been cases during the rainy season. Fatality rates are also unacceptably high. Over the last few years they have remained between 20% and 25%. This is particularly bad given that there is an effective treatment for the disease if it’s detected early and patients are presented at the hospital.

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