Weekly Trust

Lassa fever returns viciously … 100 dead in 60 days, more than 30 in critical condition

Scientists at the Nigeria’s only hospital that specializes in the treatment of Lassa fever, Irrua Specialist Hospital, Benin were unanimous that this year   is likely to be the worst since 1969 when the first case was recorded in Lassa, Borno State, going by early signs.

“With the number of patients currently on admission and those who have so far died from the illness, Nigeria may record the worst Lassa Fever epidemic this year,” head of nurses, Lassa Fever Ward, Irrua Specialist hospital, Mrs. Rebecca Atafo told Weekly Trust. Mrs Atafo said the pathetic death of a family of three which was wiped out by the dreaded illness in January shows the gravity of the problem at hand.
The hospital record obtained by the Weekly Trust shows that 100 patients were brought to the institution within January, 2013 alone, out of which 40 had died. According to the breakdown of the cases by the scientist at the research and documentation centre of the hospital, Ikponwonsa Ordia, Edo State has the highest figure of 38 reported cases out of which 15 had died.  Ondo State has the  second  highest  with  19 patients out of which eight died, this was followed by Taraba  State with eight cases brought to the hospital out of which three died.
Other states include Benue six patients, Plateau   two patients, Rivers, Nasarawa and Ebonyi one each, as well as Abuja five among others.
Ordia said by the end of February, the   number of patients brought to the hospital had risen to 190 out of which 100 died, while 30 are still in critical condition.
He said these figures only represented cases brought to the hospital in Irruah, when the situation has gotten too bad to handle, explaining that many more must have died from the illness across the country.
He said the victims from Taraba and Ebonyi States are health workers, wondering what could have happened to the patients they got infected from and their families.
Chief Medical Director of the hospital, Professor George   Akpede said although the outbreak has been reported in more than 13 states, the epidemic may be countrywide.
Confirmed cases from affected states show that the death rate is higher than the official statistics had revealed. Report from Plateau State showed that the virus has claimed three lives from the village of Tuwan in Kanke local government area of the state alone. Health workers were unanimous that the illness is not limited to Tuwan alone.
In Nasarawa State, five cases were confirmed within Tudun Gwandara, in Karu Local Government Area after diagnoses at the Dalhatu Araf Specialists’ Hospital (DASH), in Lafia. There was also an official confirmation of one death from the illness in the state.
 Weekly Trust also learnt that the virus claimed two lives in Ebonyi State from the six confirmed cases apart from the one listed by doctors at Irrua.
Prof Akpede said there had been 60 per cent increase in suspected cases and 80 per cent increase in confirmed cases across the country. He  said  more  than  51 million  Nigerians are  at  risk  with  the  annual  number  of  illness  estimated  at  3 million  and  the  annual  number  of  deaths  estimated  at   about  58,330.
He said 15-20 percent of patients hospitalized for Lassa fever die from the illness. “The death rate during epidemic is however far higher, ranging between 30 and 60 per cent. The death rate is particularly high for woman in the third trimester of pregnancy and for fetus, about 95 per cent of which die in the uterus of infected pregnant mothers,” he revealed.
Former Commissioner for Health in Edo State, Moses Momoh agreed that there is really a Lassa fever epidemic across the country. He said the disease which was seasonal and restricted to Edo central has now spread to all parts of the state and now occurs all year round. “It is no longer a seasonal disease,” he noted, while calling for joint action by stakeholders to tackle the menace.
Worried by the upsurge of the disease, the Federal Government has sent intervention team to some of the affected states to “investigate and put in place preventive measures to avoid the spread of the disease.”  
Minister of Health, Onyebuchi Chukwu said the team went with drugs from the ministry, with personal protection equipment, they will investigate the cases. They will do contact tracing and mount environmental control.
“Then they will meet with the state officials to come up with information and education materials that can be distributed to people in their languages,’’ he said.
The minister said the aim of distributing the information materials in vernacular was to facilitate awareness on prevention.
However, experts, advice the Federal Government to find lasting solution to the menace instead of waiting for an outbreak before deploying its men to affected areas. 
“Why would the government wait for an outbreak before it begins to think of printing information materials on prevention to residents of the affected areas? What purpose would that serve in the first place”, a medical doctor with a private hospital in Jalingo, Dr. Joseph Banjamin queried.
He said for a disease that is seasonal, intervention was supposed to be an all-round thing. “Between last year and now what has really been down in area of prevention across the country, especially since the areas prone to attacks are known? Where health centres more empowered to deal with the situation now than there were last year? How equipped is the specialist hospital in Irrua to deal with the spread?,” he asked.
Director, Administration of Irrua Specialist Hospital, Mr Tony Edeko said the manpower and equipment available at the hospital are grossly inadequate, to deal with the rising cases of Lassa Fever. He said the hospital requires more isolation facilities and dialysis machines in addition to manpower to enable it deal with the new reality.
A former Vice Chancellor of the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Professor Dennis Agbonlahor has said   poor funding and lack of political will were responsible for the prevalence of Lassa fever endemic in Nigeria.
Prof. Agbonlahor said the Nigerian government was yet to show enough commitment towards Lassa fever eradication over the years.
He spoke on the topic “Lassa Fever: A 44-year-old Deadly Public Health Burden in Nigeria” at the 10th College Guest Lecture organised by the University of Benin College of Medical Sciences recently.
The former AAU VC said funds donated by foreign donors for establishment of Lassa fever laboratories in each zones of the federation were collected by some officials of the Federal Ministry of Health but never accounted for.
Prof. Agbonlahor said Lassa fever has claimed more lives than more publicized infectious diseases such as meningitis, HIV/AIDs, acute diarrhea, among others.
He said over 100,000 lives had been lost to Lassa fever between 1969 and 2013, adding that many unrecorded deaths occurred in rural areas.
Prof. Agbonlahor said   23 states in Nigeria were affected by Lassa fever in 2012 out of which 87 deaths were recorded.
He said Lassa fever cases were confirmed in Nigeria 39 years after its first outbreak in1969, because there was inadequate laboratory diagnostic facilities for confirming suspected cases of Lassa fever.
Prof. Agbonlahor said vaccination against Lassa fever in the country has not been possible due to lack of funding and political will.
He urged the Federal Government to establish zonal diagnostic offices for Lassa fever across the country, and to also show more interest and concern on the control and eradication of the disease.
Meanwhile, Dr Nasidi Abdulsalami, Director, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, said there has been no new case of Lassa fever since drugs were sent   to Ondo and Benue.
He said the cases in Ondo are still confined to Ose Local Government Area. “But we are expanding our reach on prevention not just with Lassa fever, but other similar diseases as well. As you know this is the season. We are in a meeting to increase the reach of prevention.
We are also implementing and strengthening Early Warning and Reporting System to catch any suspected new case,” he said.

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