A Dutch doctor who contracted Lassa fever while working in Sierra Leone has died in hospital. The medic reportedly caught the viral haemorrhagic illness after operating on a pregnant woman. The doctor was flown home following the infection, however, he succumbed to the infection while being treated in an isolation ward in the city of Leiden, Dutch Health Minister Bruno Bruins was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.
The minister added that a second doctor who has also been infected with the virus had been evacuated and was being treated at an isolation ward in the central city of Utrecht. The doctors, who were linked to a charity, had been working at a hospital in Masanga, the BBC News reported. Lassa fever, often described as a cousin of Ebola virus disease, is endemic to a number of West African countries, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
WHAT IS LASSA FEVER?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness caused by Lassa virus – a member of the arenavirus family of viruses. The infection is spread through the urine and faeces of the multimammate rat (Mastomys natalensis). Transmission of the virus occurs through the ingestion or inhalation of infected rat urine or faeces. Since the rats live in and around human habitation, they can come into contact with foodstuffs, leading to the spread of the disease in humans.
Lassa fever, also known as Lassa hemorrhagic fever (LHF), can be transmitted from person-to-person, particularly between patients and medics at poorly equipped healthcare facilities that lack adequate infection prevention and control measures. It may also be spread through sharing needles or sexual contact. However, casual contact (including skin-to-skin contact without the exchange of body fluids) does not spread the virus.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF LASSA FEVER
The signs and symptoms of Lassa fever may vary and include pulmonary, cardiac, and neurological problems. Symptoms usually appear within 1-3 weeks after the person comes into contact with the virus. About 80 per cent of people infected with Lassa fever do not experience symptoms – although they may have mild symptoms such as headache, fever, general malaise and weakness. The infection can progress to more serious symptoms in the remaining 20 per cent of patients. Symptoms can include:
- A cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Swollen airways
- Swollen face
- Bleeding in the gums, nose, eyes, or elsewhere
- Repeated vomiting
- Pain in the chest, back, and abdomen
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Hearing loss
- High or low blood pressure
As per the CDC, approximately 15-20 per cent of patients hospitalised for Lassa fever die from the illness. The overall case-fatality rate is 1 per cent, which means only 1 per cent of all Lassa fever cases results in death.
HOW IS LASSA FEVER TREATED?
There is no vaccine for Lassa fever, but early diagnosis and prompt treatment can improve the chances of survival. Ribavirin, an antiviral drug, has been shown to be most effective when administered early in the course of the infection. Patients are also given supportive care, which includes rehydration, maintenance of oxygenation and blood pressure, etc.
With no vaccine available yet against Lassa fever, it’s important to take precautionary steps and prevent contact with rodents, especially in the geographic regions where outbreaks occur. Perhaps, the main focus of prevention should focus on community hygiene – such as
- Regular handwashing
- Using rodent-proof containers for storing food
- Avoiding blood, bodily fluids, and other contaminated surfaces when caring for sick relatives
- Using protective equipment in a healthcare setting – such as masks, gloves, gowns and eyewear, etc
Additionally, raising awareness about the disease and educating people especially in high-risk areas to control the rodent population is key to the prevention of Lassa fever.