Public health physician, Dr. Gbenga Adepoju, talks about Lassa fever with SIMON UTEBOR
What is Lassa fever?
Lassa fever is a developing disease that people contract once there is a contamination with some droplets from infected rats.
How does one contract it from rat?
When food is contaminated and human beings eat it, the virus will germinate inside the human beings and start manifesting in form of bleeding and fever. It will appear like normal fever but this time round; the bleeding is coming from orifices (holes in the body). That is why it is called hemorrhagic fever – bleeding from orifices.
What is the incubation period of Lassa fever?
The incubation period is between 10 and 21 days.
What happens after the incubation period?
After the incubation period, of course, it will start manifesting in form of fever, loss of appetite, general body weakness, among others. Three to five days after the incubation period, if nothing is done about it to find out whether it is the normal malaria fever, it will graduate from bleeding to something towards Lassa.
What are the early signs and symptoms of Lassa fever?
As I said earlier, it will start like the normal raise in body temperature, loss of appetite and tiredness. One may not go to the hospital on time thinking it is the normal malaria. Once attention is not given to it, it will graduate to bleeding from orifices.
Is it contagious?
It is highly contagious. When a person contracts the viral disease, such a person should be isolated and kept in quarantine.
What is the cure for it?
We lay more emphasis on prevention. Cure is highly symptomatic as the patient is presented in the hospital. When I say the person is bleeding from the orifices, naturally, you have to transfuse – you take care of the symptoms as it is coming out – making sure that the virus get out of the system. We try to give some anti-viral drugs. Most of the times, the viral diseases will run their course. We try to make sure that it does not cause much damage.
Like when you talk about the HIV, you know it is a viral disease. What the medicine does it to make sure it is suppressed that is why with the efforts to find cure for HIV, we have not found a definite cure for it.
Likewise the Lassa fever will run its course but we have to suppress it so that it does not cost much damage until the person gets out of the sickness.
Can Lassa fever and HIV be classified in the same group?
No, but they can be referred to as viral diseases. The mode of transmission is different. Lassa is a synoptic disease – it has to do with rodents. Some people do not take care of their environment. That is why the issue of prevention matters most in taking care of any viral disease for that matter.
How is Lassa fever prevented?
People should imbibe hand washing principle. They should wash their hands very well before eating. They shouldn’t eat infected food so as not to get infected. Wash your hand after every procedure. If one touches anything, one should wash one’s hand. One cannot know if an infected rat has passed through what one just touched and once the rat leaves some droplets, it becomes a problem.
Hand washing is very important. That is why the World Health Organisation dedicates a day for its celebration in order to create awareness for people to remember the significance of hand washing, especially in preventing Lassa fever.
Apart from that, people should make sure that they cover their food. Also, uncooked food should be kept in a place where rat will not be able to enter it. At times, when one keeps rice or anything and rat gets there, why eating it, it can drop faeces and other things. Thus, if one is not careful and one eats such a food, one becomes a victim of Lassa fever.
We have to make sure that we take care of our environment. Tidiness should be the keyword. Don’t keep unnecessary things that can attract rats. Make sure you live in a rat-free environment.
For health workers, immediately somebody is diagnosed with Lassa fever, take the person to an isolation ward – separate such a patient from other patients in the hospital. Also, wear what is regarded as personal protection equipment so that health workers, in saving somebody’s life, one will not end up being victims.
If one keeps to these rules, chances that one will run into these problems will be minimal. At the same time, we should wash our food properly in case rats have touched the basket where the food is kept. You have to wash food and fruits very well before eating them.
Some people buy fruits and start eating them without washing. Is it a good practice?
I want to believe that even in the grocery, it is the part of the hygiene that they must have been tutored that they have to wash before they package things for people. But if one cannot wash it there, one can take it home and wash. One must wash one’s fruits before eating them.
Is there any way to know if a food is infested with Lassa fever?
There is no way to know, except one observes, maybe, something that looks like urine of any animal. One should be observant and that should be the rule. Once you have anything that is eatable and it is not covered, chances are very high and that is why one should wash it. Raw food in the house must be well covered because if rat urinates on ‘red garri’ and not the ‘white one’, one may not be able to detect whether there is any urine of rat or not. I will advise that once food is not covered, people should refrain from eating it. For instance, when one notices that one or two rats are running around the house, the chances of infection are high.
Is Lassa fever deadly?
It is very deadly. It is contagious. And what leads to bleeding through the orifices (holes in the body) is just a question of hours. Before it could get to that level, it could have destroyed some organisms of the blood.
Are there other ways one can contract the disease apart from through rats?
No. Most micro-organisms affecting human beings have their vectors and reservoir. Interestingly, it does not kill rats but rats are the reservoir. The disease is caused by rats only for now.
Some states in Nigeria have recorded cases of Lassa fever. What would you advise the various governments to do?
Governments should be proactive about it. In every state of the federation, we have the public health departments. In Osun State, for instance, our epidemiology unit in Public Health Department is very active. We created surveillance officers. We have one officer with a deputy or assistant in every local government area. They are the ones serving as policemen in finding out whatever what is happening and report. I believe that is the design for every state in Nigeria. They are always on the road – whenever they see such a thing, they report immediately and the government moves with its machinery and do the necessary things. If it is something the state cannot cope with, it will report to the Federal Government that will move in to ensure that the needful is done. You know that human beings are very mobile. The fact that we are in Osun does not mean we cannot go to other states. You have to make sure that something is done.
One thing I should add to it is that when somebody dies of Lassa fever, they should start burial arrangement because whether the person is living or dead, it is highly infectious. There is a special arrangement in burying those killed by Lassa fever. They have to guard such persons until they get to grave so that people will not be infected. Most of the times, government in every state, is proactive and work in partnership with the Federal Government. Therefore, if it is something that they cannot cope with in their state, the Federal Government will step in to assist.
What drugs are needed to cure it?
Viral diseases are managed symptomatically. There is a particular anti-viral drug that is given to a patient when in the hospital under physician’s care. I don’t want to mention the drug because of abuse. My advice is that Lassa fever should go to hospital.