Liberia’s Health Ministry Declares LASSA Fever Outbreak
Monrovia – At least 21 people have died from Lassa fever in Liberia this year as the Ministry of Health declared an outbreak of the disease on Friday, August 30 in Monrovia. One health worker, who was a laboratory technician, is amongst the dead.
Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, [email protected]
There are also 25 confirmed cases and 92 suspected cases recorded between January 1 and August 25 this year, according to Dr. Francis Kateh, Chief Medical officer of Liberia.
These cases are reported from Nimba (9), Bong (10), Grand Bassa (5) and Grand Kru (1)) while 92 other cases remain suspected cases, the National Public Health Institute said in a release.
On August 24 and 25, NPHIL says its laboratory also confirmed two additional cases of Lassa fever infection in a 46-year old male and a 14-year old female, both residents of Suakoko Town, Bong County.
The case fatality rate among confirmed cases is 36% and males are mostly affected by the disease (56%) of confirmed cases as compared to females, the release disclosed.
“What is more concerning to us is the fact that when health workers, that have the authority and have been trained to identify and take care of others, are being infected then that escalates the process to another level,” Dr. Keteh told journalists on Friday morning at an impromptu press conference intended to announce the emergency, adding that “Some health workers” have been tested and are undergoing treatment.
Added Tolbert Nyenswah, Director General of NPHIL: “Lassa is second Ebola, no need to hide the information. It’s better we put it [the information] out there – the situation we dealing with and how we can prevent it.”
“So, it is important that we raise this and let the general public know that there are a couple of things that they can do in order to save lives.”
Cases outside ‘Lassa Belt’
The Chief Medical Officer stressed that the situation is “alarming” because cases are being confirmed outside of the region known for recording Lassa fever.
“From the Nimba County area going through Bong [county] to Lofa County – that is the Lassa Belt – and so those are places that we have always been concerned of but if you can now find Lassa in other parts of Liberia then, of course, it’s becoming a major issue,” he said.
“Normally, it’s during the dry season that we see the escalation of Lassa fever but during the rainy season if we having people positive then it’s also concerning.”
What is Lassa fever?
Lassa fever is a deadly viral disease which is spread by rodents or rats and through close contact with affected persons. The illness was discovered in 1969 and is named after a town in Nigeria where the first cases occurred.
It is endemic in parts of West Africa including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, according to the US Center for Disease Control, CDC.
An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 infections of Lassa fever occur annually, with approximately 5,000 deaths.
“Surveillance for Lassa fever is not standardized; therefore, these estimates are crude. In some areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia, it is known that 10-16% of people admitted to hospitals annually have Lassa fever, demonstrating the serious impact the disease has on the region,” the CDC states on its website.
Is Liberia Prepared to deal with Lassa?
NPHIL, the Liberian government agency responsible to track diseases, says the viral disease is not new to Liberia but they are concerned about the “sporadic increase” outside the Lassa Belt which requires “urgent attention.”
However, Nyenswah expressed confidence that the country can deal with the outbreak, disclosing that there’s a Lassa fever contingency comprehensive plan that has been rollout to stop other counties that may get infected by the disease.
He said NPHIL has moved drugs to start treating patients but said more drugs are needed as well as the monitoring of over 30 contacts to “avoid these patients from showing symptoms”.
Dr. Kateh added that the health sector “has the capacity to curtail those diseases that may show their faces” in Liberia but he also stressed that the “critical thing” is gathering support to ensure public health issues are mitigated.
“This is where the government and our partners have to come together and how we can give the necessary support,” he said.
Liberia was rocked by the Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2015 exposing the weakness of the country’s health sector and killing over 11,000 people. But the health authority has said the sector is resilient than before the 2014 outbreak.
“One of the things we’ve said is that after Ebola we are not going to find ourselves in the situation that we were in prior to Ebola and also it is also important that when these issues come about we will be as transparent as possible to let you know what is going on and what steps we are taking to curtail the infectious rate,” said Dr. Kateh.
Meanwhile, he called on the public to improve hygiene measures by keeping their environment clean, cover dishes to prevent rats from coming in contact with them, cover food in tightly-closed containers, avoid eating rats, avoid drying food in open places, avoid body contact with affected persons and endemic zone, and visit a health facility immediately when you feel sick amongst others measures.
NPHIL, MOH and partners have also called on the general public to take the necessary preventive measures and report cases of fever to the nearest health facility.
“We continue to improve our rapid response teams at county, district and community levels through the County Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and to provide technical, financial and logistical support to the outbreaks,” NPHIL release added.