Curbing deaths during Lassa fever outbreaks
THE death of two medical doctors and one nurse from Lassa fever in Ebonyi State once again highlights the need for decisive measures to strengthen the nation’s health system and proactively respond to disease outbreaks. The death of the health workers in the line of duty is particularly regrettable considering that even though there is no vaccine currently available, Lassa fever is preventable and treatable. According to the University Graduates of Nursing Science Association, UGONSA, no less than 40 health workers have died of Lassa fever in Ebonyi State over the past 13 years. It is not uncommon for healthcare workers in health facilities to be particularly at risk of contracting Lassa fever, especially where infection prevention and control, IPC, procedures are not strictly adhered to. Humans become infected with the Lassa virus when they get exposed to urine and faeces of the carrier rodents. Person-to-person transmission also occurs under poor sanitary conditions. Healthcare practitioners are at risk if they fail to employ proper barrier nursing and infection control practices. Nigeria is grossly deficient in its response to the Lassa fever menace. Since early 2015 through most of 2017, Lassa fever outbreaks have been commonplace in the country. On December 20, 2016, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, confirmed a case of Lassa fever in a healthcare worker who had died at the Federal Medical Centre, Abeokuta. Between January and December 2017, a total of 733 suspected Lassa fever cases with 143 laboratory confirmed cases and 71 deaths were recorded in 97 LGAs and 29 States of the Federation. Two deaths from Lassa fever were also recorded at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, with at least 150 suspected cases, mostly healthcare workers, placed under surveillance. Nigerians expect commitment by all states and federal public health teams to the prevention and response to Lassa fever outbreaks and similar public health threats. The authorities should enforce the practice of universal care precautions among healthcare practitioners. These workers should remain vigilant and maintain a high index of suspicion while handling patients at all times, not just when Lassa fever is suspected. Health workers should adopt the National Guidelines for Infection Prevention and Control, as well as utilise the Lassa fever case management guidelines developed and disseminated by the NCDC and WHO. The Lassa fever Eradication Committee set up to map out effective response plans needs to wake up. Its mandate to tackle outbreaks and reduce deaths from Lassa fever in Nigeria as well as implement a response strategy is relevant now more than ever before. Combating the menace of Lassa fever is a collective responsibility at individual, community, state and national levels supported with best practices and comprehensive public hygiene standards.