The deadly virus Nigerians fear more than COVID-19: Lassa fever | Health

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Owo, Nigeria – The second Victory Ovuoreoyen heard he had Lassa virus, he thought it was the top. The tradesman might barely stroll and feared for his life when admitted to the Federal Medical Centre within the metropolis of Owo in southwestern Nigeria. He ran a fever, was vomiting and had extreme diarrhoea.

However after 4 days in an isolation ward, the emaciated affected person can now sit upright on his hospital cot, one of many few sufferers within the infirmary sturdy sufficient to talk. “Earlier than I fell sick, I couldn’t rely my bones like this. I misplaced a lot weight,” he says, pointing at his clavicles clearly exhibiting beneath his unfastened mustard-coloured shirt.

Medical doctors have assured the 48-year-old man that he’ll recuperate from the sickness, an acute haemorrhagic illness much like Ebola. He’s fortunate. Though 80 p.c of these contaminated don’t get very sick from the virus and most circumstances go undiagnosed, the loss of life charge amongst those that find yourself in hospital is 15 p.c, in line with the World Well being Group. With an incubation interval of between two and 21 days, extreme signs can begin exhibiting every week into the sickness. By then it may very well be too late.

Lassa fever lowers the platelet rely within the blood and its capability to clot, inflicting inner bleeding. Deadly organ failure can comply with inside days.

Early signs embody head and muscle aches, sore throat, nausea and fever. Initially, they’re indistinguishable from the signs of malaria, a standard illness within the area. The laboratory of this hospital in Owo is the one one within the state that performs the Lassa diagnostic blood exams and the outcomes are solely obtainable after two days. This mix of things usually results in Lassa being found at a late stage, which makes it more durable to deal with.

Owo, an agricultural market centre 300 kilometres (186 miles) from the Nigerian capital Abuja, is the epicentre of the Lassa outbreak that started early this 12 months, inflicting greater than 160 deaths. At its top in March, the 38 beds within the isolation ward didn’t suffice and 10 extra cots have been added for suspected circumstances. On this a part of Nigeria, folks worry the Lassa virus excess of the coronavirus. With good motive: Ondo, the state the place Owo is positioned, has since 2020 recorded 171 deaths brought on by Lassa, versus 85 from COVID-19, in line with the An infection Management and Analysis Centre on the hospital.

The patient entrance of the Lassa ward where only infected people are allowed in
The affected person entrance of the Lassa ward the place solely individuals who have contracted Lassa fever are allowed in [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

‘It’s so contagious’

Head nurse Josephine Funmilola Alabi checks the intravenous drip that administers Ovuoreoyen’s antiviral remedy and treats dehydration, a problem severely sick Lassa fever sufferers should battle. Alabi is wearing a white hazmat go well with, surgical cap, face masks and face defend. Solely dressed like this may occasionally she enter the “pink zone”, because the isolation ward for extremely contagious sufferers is known as. She additionally wears disinfected rubber boots and two pairs of surgical gloves. Not a millimetre of her pores and skin is left uncovered. “We take this virus very critically. It’s so contagious that we’re solely allowed to enter the ward with full PPE,” Alabi says, referring to the private protecting tools that medical personnel caring for sufferers with extremely infectious ailments put on. 4 of the Lassa deaths in Nigeria this 12 months have been of medical employees.

Regardless of its widespread presence in West Africa, the illness stays little recognized in a lot of the world. The virus was found in 1969 within the northern Nigerian city of Lassa, about 1,000km (621 miles) from Owo. Since then, it has turn into endemic in at the least 5 nations in West Africa. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, registers the best variety of circumstances, as much as 1,000 a 12 months. This 12 months, in January alone, Nigeria recorded 211 confirmed circumstances, of which 40 sufferers died.

Lassa fever infects an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Africans annually, of which 1000’s die, in line with the Africa Centres for Illness Management and Prevention.

Contaminated folks can infect others by way of bodily fluids. The fever usually causes miscarriages and may be handed from moms to infants. It could actually stay in breast milk for as much as six months. Like different viruses inflicting haemorrhagic fevers that haven’t any treatment and are straightforward to breed, scientists have warned that the Lassa virus may very well be used as a organic weapon.


A photo of a person hanging rubber boots on a rack outside with another rack behind them with some gloves on it.
Private protecting tools is disinfected and hung to dry all through the day [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

‘Illnesses don’t have boundaries’

The fever tends to strike in impoverished rural areas and meals contaminated with rat droppings or urine is commonly the supply of an infection. Roasted recreation, recognized regionally as bushmeat, may also be tainted if the slaughtered animal has been in touch with the rodents. The rats usually enter folks’s homes seeking one thing to eat when the rains cease. That’s the reason Lassa fever usually peaks in Nigeria’s dry season, from November to April, though circumstances persist all 12 months spherical.

It’s not spreading over the world as quickly as COVID-19 did, says scientific microbiologist Adebola Olayinka. However she warns that this may occasionally change. She is an knowledgeable in infectious hazardous ailments and coordinates Lassa fever analysis for the Nigeria Centre for Illness Management. “Take a look at the story of Ebola,” she says. “This existed within the Democratic Republic of Congo for many years, however in 2014 in a short time reached West Africa after which England and the US.”

No confirmed medicine or vaccines shield in opposition to Lassa fever, Olayinka says. At the moment, the one pharmaceutical used in opposition to Lassa fever is ribavirin, an antiviral drug generally used to deal with Hepatitis C. However its effectiveness in opposition to the Lassa virus has not been totally researched, and pre-clinical research and costly scientific trials are wanted to show the efficacy of the drug. She believes the shortage of analysis into Lassa is as a result of the virus hardly ever seems within the West.

“Take a look at the velocity with which the COVID vaccine has been developed,” she says. “But when an infectious illness doesn’t have an effect on the rich, it received’t get the identical quantity of consideration.” A 12 months after the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 the Entry to Medication Index compiled a list of the analysis and growth efforts of the 20 largest pharmaceutical firms. It counted 63 initiatives regarding coronaviruses, 5 overlaying Ebola and nil for haemorrhagic viruses unfold by rodents like Lassa, principally present in Africa and Latin America.

But the West will not be invulnerable to Lassa. Earlier this 12 months, a pair in England was recognized with the illness. The husband contracted it throughout a go to to Mali after which contaminated his pregnant spouse. Their untimely child died of the virus in a Bedfordshire hospital. “The West wants to grasp {that a} illness wherever may very well be a illness all over the place,” warns Olayinka. “Illnesses don’t have boundaries.”

Doctor Owhin (right) speaks to his cured patient mrs Akinyola who has returned for a checkup
Dr Owhin (proper) speaks to his cured affected person Akinyola who has returned for a check-up [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

‘They caught it on time’

In Owo, head nurse Alabi continues her rounds. On this specific day in April, 20 of the 38 beds are crammed. That is the one remedy centre for Lassa fever in Ondo, a state half the dimensions of Belgium with about 3.5 million inhabitants. A month earlier the ward was crammed to the brim. And a few years in the past so many individuals have been contaminated that tents for sufferers have been put up on the open grounds subsequent to the bungalow the place the Lassa ward is positioned.

Alabi asks sufferers how they’re doing and checks an intravenous (IV) drip right here and there. Aside from anti-viral medicine, sufferers are also handled with nutritional vitamins, antibiotics for extra micro organism infections and malaria medicines if additionally they take a look at optimistic for that illness. The employees will not be supposed to remain within the “pink” isolation zone for greater than an hour at a stretch, to restrict the danger of an infection. However throughout an outbreak reminiscent of this 12 months’s, doing rounds in an overcrowded ward can take two hours. “It’s a threat you are taking, for the sake of the sufferers,” she says matter-of-factly.

Hospital beds with chipped enamel bars line the corridors of the “pink zone”. IV baggage hold subsequent to the cots. Alabi explains that the sufferers lie within the hallway in order that the employees can hear them once they weakly name for assist. Disinfecting the medical employees’s protecting boots and face shields happens across the clock. Used gear goes into massive vats of chlorinated water and is then placed on wood stands to dry within the tropical solar.

Across the nook, beneath the marquee overlaying the trail to the clinic’s entrance, Dr Sampson Omagbemi Owhin holds a session with a affected person, Olaide Akinyola. Seated on plastic chairs within the open air they talk about her restoration.

Akinyola, a 38-year-old major faculty trainer, returned to the Lassa ward this morning for a check-up. She ended up within the remedy centre a month and a half in the past after feeling sick for a few days. She initially thought the bleeding was from a heavy menstrual movement, however when she felt too dizzy to face upright, she obtained examined for Lassa. Inside hours of receiving a optimistic consequence, she was admitted to the clinic.

Akinyola was fortunate, says her physician: “They caught it on time”. She obtained a blood transfusion and was handled with ribavirin, which on this case appeared to have helped.

Mrs Kayode, a main character, in the patient area of ​​the family visitor's room, a lean-to under which a ditch separates the sick from the healthy
Kayode Omolayo sits within the affected person space of ​​the household visiting space, a lean-to beneath which a ditch separates the sick from the wholesome [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

Data is a weapon

Being a trainer, Akinyola has easy accessibility to details about the virus, she says. “That’s why I used to be not too scared once I was admitted right here,” she explains. “I knew my possibilities have been good since they caught the virus early.”

Data is a crucial weapon within the combat in opposition to Lassa fever, her physician affirms. Even after a affected person has been discharged from the ward, they will proceed to endure from bleeding for a very long time. Haematologist Ohwin explains that, apart from persistent blood issues, the virus has been present in semen two years later – a motive why recovered male sufferers are suggested to make use of condoms throughout intercourse.

Later that day, 42-year-old Kayode Omolayo shuffles out of the affected person exit of the Lassa clinic and heads in the direction of the guests’ space, a concrete flooring coated by an orange aluminium roof shelter. The platform beneath is bisected by a ditch, separating the sick from the wholesome. A steel signal within the grass directs guests to the fenced-off space the place, from a secure distance, they will greet the sick who’ve recovered sufficient to get away from bed.

After 10 days within the Lassa division, Omolayo is keenly conscious of the necessity for hygiene at dwelling. “The very first thing I’ll do is clear all the things from prime to backside and examine for rat droppings,” she says.

On the Lassa ward, head nurse Alabi steps out of the pink zone into the station the place protecting gear comes off and plastic barrels are positioned to disinfect footwear and face shields that might be reused. As she fastidiously peels off the layers, the 50-year-old shares her considerations in regards to the future.

In keeping with the nurse, NGOs supporting the combat in opposition to ailments like Lassa fever are discovering it more and more tough to lift funds. Meaning the bottled water for the employees to rehydrate after hours in sweaty moon fits has been lower. The supply of non-public protecting tools is slowing down. Most Nigerians can’t afford the $1,000 price for remedy, and she or he fears that the medical centre may run out of cash to supply the present free care.

Within the meantime, the employees is gearing itself up for an additional wave. The smile on Alabi’s face disappears as she squints by way of her rectangular glasses and states solemnly: “The following lethal Lassa outbreak is simply a matter of time.”

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