HOW TO PREVENT LASSA FEVER
How to Avoid Lassa Fever
Unless you live in or have visited certain parts of western Africa, or have had close contact with someone who does or has, your likelihood of contracting Lassa fever is very low. That said, this viral illness should not be taken lightly, because it infects hundreds of thousands of people each year and causes several thousand deaths. Beyond steering clear of its endemic region, the best ways to avoid Lassa fever are to limit close contact with people who might possibly be infected, maintain clean living conditions, and recognize the symptoms and transmission methods of the disease.
Recognizing Risk Factors
Avoid or take precautions in the endemic region.Other than relatively limited cases of travelers carrying the illness with them, Lassa fever is almost entirely contained within a section of western Africa centered on Ghana and stretching from Guinea to Nigeria (see the map at ). If you do not spend time in this region, or come into contact with secretions or excretions of an infected person, your current risk of contracting Lassa fever is extremely low.
- Remember that Lassa fever is a contagious viral infection, though, and that it could spread beyond its current footprint at any time. So don’t panic, but practice reasonable caution.
- If you are in the endemic zone, pay attention to any warnings posted by governmental or health organizations, steer clear of unsanitary conditions and infected persons, and utilize the other precautions discussed in more detail in this article.
Take care around West African residents and travelers.People are not considered contagious if they don’t present symptoms, and simple skin-to-skin contact will not transmit Lassa fever, so there is no reason to completely avoid people who have recently been in the endemic region. You may want to avoid unnecessary contact with the bodily fluids of such persons, however, especially if they present any possible signs of illness.
- If a person who has recently been in the endemic region presents with flu-like symptoms or signs of a gastrointestinal illness, it would be prudent to avoid contact and have that person seek a medical evaluation.
Steer clear of multimammate rats.The rodent mastomys, more commonly known as the multimammate rat, is Lassa fever’s “animal vector” — the primary transmitter to humans. They are found in large numbers throughout the endemic region and, like any rat, they thrive in locations where there is accessible human food or trash. The rats are carriers of Lassa fever, but not symptomatic.
- The virus is usually transmitted through contamination of food or surfaces by rat urine or droppings. Eating the rodent, which is not unheard of, may also transmit the virus.
- Steering clear of rats and rat excrement is good practice at all times, but you should take particular care within the endemic region. Avoid areas where there is accessible food or trash, because there is a good chance the rats are there, even if you don’t see them.
Support good “community hygiene” in areas where the virus may be present.The rats that carry Lassa fever are, like their rodent cousins everywhere, too numerous and crafty to be eradicated. The best alternative is to create inhospitable conditions for them, for instance by storing food securely, keeping trash secured and away from living areas, cleaning household floors and surfaces regularly, and possibly by keeping cats around.
- Keeping your own area clean will do little good if your neighbor’s place is a rodent hotel, however. Organizations that are battling Lassa fever regularly promote “community hygiene” programs in an effort to make entire areas less hospitable to rodents.
Avoid contact with the secretions or excretions of the possibly infected.Casual contact with a person infected with Lassa fever carries no determinable risk of transmission, but avoiding contact with her bodily fluids is essential. Use extreme caution if you are in contact with people who may have Lassa fever, and never try to care for them yourself.
- In one of the rare cases of Lassa fever in the U.S., a traveler who returned from western Africa died in New Jersey in May 2015. As part of the precautions taken, anyone who had been in close proximity to the victim was monitored for 21 days.
Ensure proper healthcare procedures.When a person who may have Lassa fever seeks medical attention, proper transmission prevention measures must be taken. The patient needs to be kept in isolation, and anyone in contact with him must use barrier protections like masks, gloves, gowns, and goggles. Proper sterilization of surfaces and equipment is likewise required.
- The person who died of Lassa fever in New Jersey in 2015 failed to respond accurately about recently traveling to the endemic zone, and as a result was sent home from the hospital initially. This probably contributed the patient’s death and put others at unnecessary risk. Never withhold information that may indicate you have Lassa fever; you are not doing yourself or others any favors.
Understanding the Illness
Get the facts.Lassa fever is named for the town in Ghana near where it was first identified as a unique viral illness in 1969. It is spread by contact with infected rats or objects contaminated by them, or person-to-person through transfer of secretions or excretions. There are typically 100,000 to 300,000 identified cases of Lassa fever annually in the endemic zone of western Africa.
- While often compared to the Ebola virus because of overlaps in outbreak zones, Lassa fever is less readily communicable and has a far smaller fatality rate (about one percent of infected persons, compared to 70% for Ebola). That still counts for some five thousand deaths per year, and Lassa fever should by no means be underestimated.
Recognize the symptoms.Some 80% of Lassa fever cases are mild, and may present few symptoms. Milder cases can present like the flu or a gastrointestinal problem — fever, malaise, weakness, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, etc. More serious cases can present with hemorrhaging of the eyes, nose, gums, etc.; respiratory distress; repeated vomiting; facial swelling; severe pain in the chest, back, or abdomen; or neurological problems like hearing loss, tremors, or encephalitis.
- The incubation period is typically six to 21 days, and the illness usually lasts for one to four weeks. In fatal cases, the cause of death is usually multi-organ failure.
- Deafness occurs in about 25% of all cases, regardless of severity otherwise. Of these instances, the hearing loss reverses itself about half of the time, usually in one to three months.
Know the treatments.There is no current vaccine to prevent Lassa fever, although work is underway. There is also no cure, although early treatment with the antiviral drug ribavirin often proves effective. Otherwise, treatment involves addressing symptoms and providing fluids and oxygen.
- Isolation of infected patients during treatment is always advised. Barrier protections and other infection-control procedures are necessary.
- The fact sheet provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a handy summary of Lassa fever. It is available at .
Video: How To Cure & Prevent Lassa Fever
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