Lassa continues to generate concern

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Health

British public service broadcaster, the BBC, has reported on Lassa fever, highlighting that the disease can cause dangerous epidemics but that there is no current vaccine.

An outbreak in Nigeria has been ongoing since the beginning of the year, as ITIJ recently reported.

The BBC news report, written by Dr Charlie Weller, Head of Vaccines at the Wellcome Trust, said that health workers are overstretched, and many have themselves become infected and died.

Lassa is a viral haemorrhagic fever that can affect a number of organs and damage blood vessels. The fatality rate is normally one per cent, said the BBC, but is believed to be more than 20 per cent among confirmed and probable cases in Nigeria.

The disease is difficult to distinguish from other diseases such as malaria and dengue when in the early stages, and as there is no readily available test, it can only be diagnosed through the analysis of a blood or tissue sample in one of a small number of specialised labs.

The BBC said that the outbreak in Nigeria is causing particular concern due to the fact that the number of cases is unusually high for this time of year.

Dr Weller believes that it is likely a vaccine could be found for the disease but said that progress has stalled – a common issue with epidemic diseases that primarily affect poorer countries. A new organisation called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is working to accelerate vaccine production and the hope is that promising vaccines will be ready for large-scale testing in the next five years.

Dr Weller also said that stronger health systems are needed in the countries where epidemics are most likely to arise, which could mean building better healthcare facilities and training staff to recognise and respond to outbreaks. This would also encompass working with communities to understand how to identify outbreaks at an early stage and prevent their spread.