WHO scaling up efforts to contain Lassa fever outbreak in West Africa

World Health Organization scaling up efforts to contain ‘fast escalating’ Lassa fever outbreak in West Africa as it continues to battle Ebola which has killed 517

  • Cases of Lassa, similar to Ebola, have soared higher than expected, officials said
  • The outbreak could overtake Nigeria’s worst outbreak last year, which killed 171
  • It’s expected to last another four months, already spread through six countries
  • Ebola still challenging health officials in the DRC, with death toll rising every day  
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The World Health Organisation is scaling up efforts to contain a rapidly growing Lassa fever outbreak in West Africa.

WHO said it is alarmed at the ‘speed of escalation’ of the virus which has killed 59 people already this year.

Cases of the haemorrhagic fever, which have symptoms similar to Ebola, have soared far higher than usual in Nigeria and five other countries.

Although outbreaks are almost a yearly occurrence during the season from December to March, this one threatens to last longer with devastating effects.

The outbreak could overtake that of last year, Nigeria’s worst, which killed 171 people. 

The concerns mirror that of the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has killed 517 people to date.  

Cases of Lassa fever, which have symptoms similar to Ebola, have soared far higher than usual, the World Health Organisation has said. Pictured, patients in 2018

WHO said it is alarmed at the ‘speed of escalation’, which is abnormal despite the time of year. Pictured, a health official disposing of medical waste in 2018

At least 275 cases of the Lassa, including 42 deaths, have been confirmed in Nigeria alone since the beginning of the year. 

This is already almost half of the total cases for all of last year, when Nigeria experienced its worst outbreak of Lassa fever.

The outbreak was declared on January 22 by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). 

Since then, there have been 59 deaths in confirmed cases, 57 of which are in Nigeria, with a case fatality rate of 20.7 per cent.

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Ibrahima Fall, the WHO’s regional emergencies director for Africa, said: ‘We are concerned by the high number of cases so early in the Lassa fever season, which is expected to last another four months.

‘WHO is working with the health authorities in the five affected countries to ensure health workers have the capacity to detect cases and we are monitoring the regional spread of the disease.’  

‘WHO continues to advise all countries in the Lassa fever belt to enhance their preparedness and response capacities, especially for early case detection, laboratory confirmation, case management under recommended barrier nursing, risk communication and community engagement,’ said Dr Fall. 

While the cases are occurring during the Lassa fever season, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is alarmed at the ‘speed of escalation’. 

Nine health workers have been infected according to Nigerian authorities, one of whom has died. 

Lassa fever – a cousin of Ebola – is spread mostly by rodents

Cases of the haemorrhagic fever have soared far higher than usual, threatening to take over the worst outbreak last year which killed 171 people

Although the epicentre of the outbreak is in Nigeria, where cases have been recorded in 19 of 36 states, a total of 12 cases have been confirmed in five other West African countries – Benin, Guinea, Liberia and Togo.

Two people have died outside Nigeria, with more suspected cases being investigated.  

The situation has led to the WHO scaling up its efforts in assisting health authorities in these countries with contact tracing and providing resources.

It has also began efforts of prevention in six other at-risk countries, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Sierra Leone.

But saving lives is difficult because nearly four in five people who become infected with the virus do not have symptoms of the disease, according to WHO. 

An important focus is on early detection and confirmation of suspected cases,  

In 2018, Lassa fever had killed 171 people in 23 states of Nigeria, out of 633 confirmed and nearly 3,500 suspected cases. 

Lassa fever is caused by a haemorrhagic virus which belongs to the same family as Marburg and Ebola.

The virus is spread through contact with food or household items contaminated with rats’ urine or faeces, or after coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

It can be prevented by enhanced hygiene and avoidance of all contact with rats. More than 80 per cent of Lassa fever cases are rodent-to-human transmission.

Elsewhere, health officials are under immense pressure to contain the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which threatens to reach neighbouring countries South Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda. 

There are a total of 823 cases, 762 confirmed and 61 probable, as of February 13, with a mortality rate of 61 per cent.

The outbreak, the second worst in history, has ravaged the country since officials confirmed the return of the virus in August.


Scientists first identified the virus causing Lassa fever in 1969. It belongs to the Arenaviridae family.

According to the World Health Organization, only 20 per cent of victims will report any symptoms.

Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria and several other countries on the west coast of Africa, including Liberia and Guinea, according to the WHO. 

Symptoms begin with headaches, sore throats and vomiting, but it can trigger bleeding from the mouth, nose or vagina.

However, they gradually progress to shock, seizures, tremors, disorientation and comas without prompt treatment.

A quarter of patients will also experience temporary deafness that will eventually return, medical literature states. 

Pregnant women who contract the disease late in pregnancy face an 80 per cent chance of losing their child or dying themselves. 

It can either be spread by rats or from person-to-person by exposure to bodily fluids of someone who is infected.   

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