In this world full of wanderlust, with all the planes, trains, and automobiles, we can travel to remote islands and the deepest jungles or the most crowded and impressive cities. Covering these distances is something early explorers couldn’t even dream of. Still, like those early explorers, we need to prepared for possible diseases in unfamiliar territory. A rare and unfamiliar disease for many today is Lassa Fever.
Background of Lassa Fever
Lassa Fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness. This general term is used to describe a severe illness associated with bleeding. The virus causing Lassa Fever was affecting individuals as early as the 1950’s. But, the virus wasn’t documented until 1969. The first cases occurred when two missionary nurses died in a little town in Nigeria known as Lassa.
Where could I get Lassa Fever?
Since those first cases in Nigeria, Lassa has been found in other West African countries. Lassa Fever was most recently found in Benin, with the first case diagnosed there in 2014.
According to the World Health Organization, Lassa Fever is endemic in:
- Sierra Leone
It is likely to exist in other West African countries as well.
How could I contract Lassa Fever?
Lassa Fever is not common. It is transmitted through exposure to the urine or feces of the common African rat or through direct contact with bodily fluids of another infected human. Those at greatest risk are those in communities where multimammate rats are commonly found. Risk increases even more in areas where healthcare and sanitation are poor or living conditions are crowded. Healthcare workers also have a higher risk of catching Lassa Fever, as they may come in contact with bodily fluids. There is no evidence to support the possibility of airborne contamination.
What does Lassa Fever look like?
The virus for Lassa Fever has an incubation period of about 1-3 weeks. When symptoms do appear, they are mild and go undiagnosed for a majority – about 80% – of cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control–
Mild Lassa Fever Symptoms can include:
- General malaise and weakness
- Sore throat
The other 20% of cases see a more severe set of symptoms that could be fatal.
Severe Lassa Fever Symptoms:
- Facial swelling
- Hemorrhaging (eyes, gums, nose, etc.)
- Repeated vomiting
- Fluid in the lungs
- Neurological problems, like hearing loss
In fatal cases, death occurs within 14 days of onset due to multiple organ failure. Lassa Fever does not have a high mortality rate. Only 1% of all Lassa Fever infections result in death.
Deafness is the most common complication of Lassa Fever, and can occur in both mild and severe cases. In fact, varying degrees of hearing loss occur in as many as one-third of Lassa Fever cases.
Lassa Fever symptoms vary, making diagnosis tricky in the early stages. Lassa Fever is also hard to distinguish from related viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola virus. Other diseases like malaria also have similar symptoms.
What is the treatment for Lassa Fever?
The antiviral drug Ribavirin has been used to treat Lassa Fever patients, though it is most effective in early stages. It should be given in conjunction with supportive care like fluid and electrolyte balance maintenance, oxygenation and blood pressure, and treatment of other infections.
How can I avoid getting Lassa Fever when traveling to West Africa?
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine currently available for Lassa Fever. But, understanding viral transmission will help you in taking extra precautions. For example, try to avoid places with poor sanitation and crowded living conditions. And of course, be careful to make sure food has not been exposed to rodents.
If you are traveling to West Africa as a healthcare professional to donate your time and service, make sure to take extra precautions. Protect yourself against illnesses like Lassa Fever so that you can stay healthy while being such a great help!
Going to West Africa anytime soon? Learn more about the vaccinations needed for your own upcoming trip by scheduling an appointment with your local Passport Health Travel Medicine Specialist. Book now by calling or schedule online today.
Written for Passport Health by Adrienne St. Clair