UK Responds to Lassa Fever Outbreak in Nigeria

Peter Russell

March 06, 2018

The UK Public Health Rapid Support Team (UK-PHRST) is being deployed to Nigeria as part of global efforts to control a Lassa fever outbreak.

According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, there have been 1,081 suspected cases of Lassa fever and 90 deaths between the 1st January and the 25th February this year.

Fourteen health workers have been affected, with 4 deaths.

Professor Daniel Bausch, director of the UK-PHRST, says in a statement: "The Lassa fever situation in Nigeria has been worsening and now requires an escalated level of response in order to help the Nigerian government slow transmission and save lives."

Health Emergencies

The UK-PHRST is run by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in partnership with Public Health England.

The specialist team, which can be deployed anywhere in the world within 48 hours, is designed to help tackle disease outbreaks that have the potential to become major global epidemics.

The team was established in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa and consists of an expert in patient management, 2 epidemiologists with skills to track outbreaks, and a logistician.

In Nigeria, they will be working alongside other experts from the World Health Organization.

Hilary Bower, who will be leading the UK team, says in a statement: "There is still much to learn about what drives the transmission of Lassa fever and the different ways it can affect people.

"My role is to help Nigerian Centre for Disease Control colleagues understand the detailed transmission routes to underpin the development of more effective public health interventions, better diagnostic tests and, eventually, a vaccine."

Diagnosis Difficulties

Lassa fever was first described in the 1950s. The virus responsible was identified in 1969 after two missionary nurses died from the disease in the Nigerian town of Lassa.

Diagnosis is difficult because it can be confused with other infections such as severe malaria, typhoid fever, and other viral hemorrhagic fevers.

Treatment with the antiviral drug ribavirin is effective when started early.

Fluid replacement and blood transfusion are among other essential measures to aid recovery.

The British government has made £20 million available from the UK development assistance budget to fund the UK-PHRST for 5 years.

World Health Organisation (WHO)

A Viral Disease From Rats

Lassa fever is a viral hemorrhagic disease. One in 5 infections are severe, affecting several organs such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys.

Humans usually become infected with Lassa virus from exposure to urine or feces of infected Mastomys rats, unique to several countries in Africa.

The virus may also be spread between humans through direct contact with the blood, urine, feces, or other bodily secretions of someone infected with Lassa fever.

There is no evidence that it can spread through the air from person to person.

Typical symptoms include fever, sore throat, headache, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, with bleeding and shock in severe cases.

It kills in around 1% of cases.

The disease is particularly severe for women in the later stages of pregnancy, in which maternal or infant death occurs in more than 80% of cases.

There is currently no vaccine to protect against Lassa fever.


Public Health England (PHE)

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)