With the recent outbreak of Lassa fever in Ondo State which has reportedly claimed the lives of nine people with 102 reported cases, the mission to eradicate the disease seems a herculean task as it keeps occurring every year.
Dr. Stephen Fagbemi, a community health consultant and physician at the state hospital, Akure, opened up to SUNSHINE HERALD’s Babatunde Alao and Todimu Ogunade on why the disease may persist for another ten years.
SH: Let us in on an Overview of Lassa Fever.
Fagbemi: Lassa fever was first identified in a town called Lassa in Borno State in 1969.
The first case was linked to the virus and a sample was collected.
We know quite a bit about the disease. It happens periodically.
It tends to flare up more during the dry season, so that is why this time last year we had it, even in the previous years and since 1969, I can assure you that we have been having it on a regular basis although it is only in the last four years that we have had so many cases across the country. Last year we had it in 29 states.
In Ondo state, we used to have it on a yearly basis maybe one or two to three cases so we know that dry season is the time we usually experience it.
So here we are again. It is the dry season.
The other thing that we noticed last year is that it started in the dry season and it continued until when the rain came. We had it up to late April, May, June last year so that is as far as we know. It is seasonal and it comes more often during the dry season.
SH: You said the disease has been occurring since 1969, how has the government been able to manage it till the past four years that it started spreading to other parts of the country?
Fagbemi: Well, this is the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Nigeria is an expert in fire brigade approach. We are known for that globally, even in sports.
When it comes, they run around helter-skelter and then when it goes, we go to sleep. That was what we practically did between 1969 till recent. Now we are also running around. Let’s hope that when it goes down we won’t go to sleep again.
SH: What triggers the virus from rats around the dry season?
Fagbemi: Most likely rats always have it. It stays in the rat. It lives in the rat but it doesn’t affect the rat. The rats are normal. It doesn’t harm them in any way so the rats are carrying them all over the place.
But this is the theory. During the dry season, the rats tend to search for food more that’s why they come into our homes and we come into contact with them but at other times, the rats, even though they have the virus.
There is a lot of bush burning too and that is where the interface between rat and man increases. People are burning bushes and trying to do clearing because the rats are trying to scurry into where human beings are living.
SH: Is the treatment for Lassa fever readily available to patients suffering from it?
Fagbemi: Most of the isolated cases start with contamination of food through the faeces or urine of rat.
The virus then begins to spread and the infected person now begins to infect people around.
Even though it is the rat that brought it to the community, after that the damage is done in the community, it spreads from man to man.
Is there retreatment? Yes! there is treatment and that is why even if you look at all the data that we are giving you, you will discover that many people are suspected, many people are confirmed but a lot of them recover because there is a drug that is effective. So there is treatment and the drug is available. People are treated. The only thing is that it is better when they come early because if they come late, then it may be too late. Usually, when there is an outbreak like this, the Federal government provides the drug for the treatment.
SH: Is there a vaccination for the virus?
Fagbemi: There is no vaccine for Lassa. Lassa is a problem of a few poor countries in Africa. White people don’t have any business in putting their money to develop a vaccine for Lassa fever. If anybody is going to take it seriously, it is we and since we always depend on what the foreigners give us, it is bad. The vaccine that started for the Ebola virus started when they took Ebola to their country and within a year they made provision so maybe someone can carry Lassa fever to their country and nobody is talking about doing a research on a vaccine for Lassa fever. It is not even in the pipeline. There is no pipeline.
SH: Is it possible that in the next 10 years, it might be eradicated?
Fagbemi: Everything is possible. When Ebola occurred a few years ago then within a year, the American made four vaccines within a year. The Americans were doing one the Chinese were doing one, the French were doing one, the Germans were doing one. And they started a trial for the vaccine so ten years is a long time.
Anything is possible in ten years but is there a will to do it? Are people willing to come in with resources? But if we continue the way we are going now, then ten years will still be the same.
SH: You were saying that it is attributed to the season, does it mean that it will be occurring every year?
Fagbemi: It is predictable, which means next year there will be Lassa. So you don’t need to be a prophet. Next year dry season, we will still see cases of Lassa. We may not be able to stop that but what will now matter is if we are ready.
Since we know, we should be ready. We should tell everybody that thing is going to come so we should let everybody in the community keep away from the rats
Even if it now happens, the hospitals are ready, the community is ready. They know, the hospital is ready so if we hear of one or two cases we can manage it.