Panic as Lassa fever spreads

Lassa-fever-OK• Multi-billion naira garri industry under threat
• Disease could cause more than 5,000 deaths in Nigeria, S’Leone

NIGERIANS are getting more apprehensive as Lassa Fever Virus (LAFV) spreads across the country. Indicative of its rapid spread, the cases have risen from 76 to over 200, from 33 deaths to over 76 deaths, and from five states to over 17 within two weeks.
Already, the garri industry , estimated at billions of naira and which is based on processed cassava tubers that provide very important staple food item in Nigeria and other West African countries may be threatened.
Pharmacists under the aegis of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) have expressed satisfaction with government’s handling of the situation.
Investigation by The Guardian revealed that the virus is getting more fatal as the death rate has risen from about 40 per cent to 100 in some states.
It was leant that while Lassa fever is often mild, the disease could be severe with signs and symptoms similar to those of Ebola Virus Disease(EVD).
According to the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), LASV causes roughly 100,000 to 300,000 cases of Lassa fever each year in West Africa, with approximately 5,000 deaths.
The centre also said as many as 10 to 16 per cent of hospital admissions in some areas of West Africa may be due to Lassa fever for which no cure or vaccine is available yet.
However, the antiviral drug ribavirin may help patients if taken early in the course of the disease. Infections in people mainly occur through exposure to infected rodents or their secretions, and less commonly, between people through direct contact with bodily fluids.
The threat to the garri industry is due to a message currently circulating widely on the social media platforms warning Nigerians against the consumption of garri. The message reads: “The problem is that most of our garri sellers buy their garri from bush markets.
This garri is often fried half dry and subsequently dried on polythene sheets on the tarred roads or compounds in the villages where rats feed on them and in the process defecate and urinate on the garri, which dries up with it. If used for eba, the virus may die because of the hot water used. But if soaked in normal water and consumed, the virus is directly ushered in.”
The Medical and Health Workers Union, Lagos State Council, has also discouraged the consumption of soaked garri as a preventive measure against Lassa fever.
The Chairman of the Union, Mr. Razak Adeofalade, was quoted to have said: “We are going to encourage members of the public to depart from the process of drinking garri. At this period, it is better that the cassava flour is utilised for eba, because of the use of hot water. We are waging total war and that is: ‘War against Rats,’ and that is what we are going to do to ensure we do not have another victim of Lassa Fever in the state.”
But cassava processors have debunked the rumoUr on garri stressing that the virus could hardly survive the production process. They, however, drew attention to the need for better hygienic practices at home.
According to them, it is untrue that garri is fried half-dry and subsequently dried on polythene sheets on tarred roads or compounds in the villages, maintaining that it is difficult for rats to feed on garri during production. They, however, harp on proper storage, stressing that, like other foods, rats can have access to garri, if not well stored.
They explained that the cyanide content in cassava makes it difficult for rats to feed on it during production process.
The Chairman of Cassava Growers Association, Pastor Tayo Adewumi, stressed that if not properly stored after production, rats could feed , urinate and defecate on it and by so doing people could come down with Lassa fever.
To him, it is unusual for garri processors to dry their product on the streets but that it is rather cassava flour that is usually dried in the sun.
He said: “It is very unusual for garri to be spread on the road. Garri is fried. But the fear is that when you expose it inside the house, without covering it, then rats can come and crawl over and defecate on it and introduce the virus to humans.”
He says that garri is not the only food that rats feed upon, as they feed on any food not properly stored.
The PSN, yesterday, commended President Muhammadu Buhari, Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac F. Adewole, Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) for the steps taken so far to combat and arrest the current Lassa fever epidemic in Nigeria.
PSN in a press statement, yesterday, jointly signed by its President, Ahmed Yakasai, and National Secretary, Gbolagade Iyiola, said the strategies put in place by the minister since the outbreak showed the Federal Government’s commitment to urgently control the outbreak.
The statement said PSN was particularly impressed with the outcomes from the emergency National Council on Health (NCH) meeting which approved among others, increase in number of diagnostic centres from six to 14, inauguration of Lassa Fever Eradication Committee and mobilisation of religious, traditional leaders and the media to fight the disease.
Also, the NMA in a statement signed by its President ,Dr. Kayode Obembe, in a statement yesterday, said there was no need for Nigerians to panic because the Federal Government has risen to the task since outbreak.
Besides, an international team of researchers has developed the largest genomic data set in the world on LASV. The new genomic catalog contains nearly 200 viral genomes collected from patient samples in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, as well as field samples from the major animal reservoir, or host, of Lassa virus—the rodent Mastomys natalensis, also called the multimammate rat.
The researchers show that LASV strains cluster into four major groups based on geographic location, with three in Nigeria and one in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Although Lassa fever was first described in modern-day Nigeria in 1969, the current study also suggests that these four LASV strains originated from a common ancestral virus more than 1,000 years ago and spread across West Africa within the last several hundred years.
Prior to the study, data from only 12 complete genomes of LASV were available, despite the virus’ endemic presence in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa. The new catalog of data provides a foundation for ongoing research on LASV and offers insight into the virus’ origins and transmission.
The study was supported by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Meanwhile, according to a new study from National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists , favipiravir, an antiviral drug currently being tested in West Africa as a treatment for Ebola virus disease, effectively treated Lassa virus infection in guinea pigs.
In the study, published October 12, 2015, in Scientific Reports, favipiravir not only effectively treated guinea pigs infected with Lassa virus, it also worked better than ribavirin.
Two days after infecting groups of guinea pigs with a lethal dose of Lassa virus, the scientists treated the rodents daily for two weeks with either ribavirin, low doses of favipiravir, or high doses of favipiravir.
All the animals that received high-dose favipiravir were completely protected from lethal infection; animals treated seven or nine days after infection had begun showing signs of disease, but their conditions quickly improved when treatment began.
Those animals in the low-dose favipiravir group showed mild to moderate signs of disease, but those symptoms resolved after about one week of treatment. The animals treated with ribavirin appeared normal during the treatment phase but developed severe disease shortly after treatment ended.
Further testing and human clinical trials are needed to determine if favipiravir, also known as T-705 and Avigan, could effectively treat Lassa virus infection in people.

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