For several months, Lassa fever has spread across no fewer than 24 states, according to the latest report by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

Data from the NCDC shows that cumulatively from week one to seven, 2024, there had been 85 deaths reported to be caused by the viral haemorrhagic illness.

Lassa fever in Nigeria has a long, sordid history. The first documented case of the disease occurred in 1969 and the disease was named after the town where the first cases occurred, as stated by the Centres for Disease Control.

The disease is caused by the Lassa virus which can be transmitted from infected humans or rats and it has been reported to be common in West Africa.

Most people get mild symptoms, like fever, headaches, and fatigue, but about one in five people has a serious illness. Pregnant people are at especially high risk for serious complications and miscarriage.

A professor of Virology at the Institute of Virology, Abuja, Alash’le Abimiku, noted that the Lassa fever epidemic had come to stay, adding that its incidence is rising across West Africa, where it has continued to spread in the last few years, thus necessitating an effective vaccine along with other interventions.

Although the Lassa fever vaccine is still being clinically tested on populations and has yet to be approved for use, experts point out that certain sanitation, food processing, and personal hygienic measures can prevent the spread of Lassa fever.

A medical practitioner, Dr Shedrack Osuji, in an interview with our correspondent, explained that the Lassa virus spreads when humans make contact with the urine, saliva, and blood of infected rodents.

“The Lassa virus is present in mastomys rats and they shed it in their urine or droppings. So, this virus is present in surfaces that have been contaminated with the urine, faeces, or blood of an infected rodent.

“Therefore, the best thing to do is to get rid of rodents or ensure that your house is impenetrable to rodents and ensure that spaces are well cleaned,” Osuji explained.

Speaking with our correspondent, a food safety officer, Josiah Basil, stated that certain food processing methods could predispose certain foods to contamination by rodents and lead to Lassa fever.

He said, “It’s common for people to spread their farm produce on roads so they can dry faster, and in so doing, infected rodents eat out of this produce and contaminate it with their saliva or leave their droppings on it.

“You find this done to processed cassava and grains. So it is advisable that when cooking such foods, they should be washed properly and heated well to kill these pathogens”

Basil advised householders to ensure that their grains and cassava products were stored properly to prevent rodents from gaining access to them.

He noted, “Store foods like garri, rice and beans in sealed containers. Maize should also be stored in good sacks and placed in a place that is inaccessible to rodents.

“Most of the time, rodents defecate or urinate around food to mark their territories and ward off other rodents, so there is also a likelihood of contamination where rodents don’t live.”

Osuji added, “If you find yourself having symptoms like chest, neck or stomach pain, difficulty breathing, severe vomiting, diarrhoea, or seizures, you need to see a doctor, especially in the cases of pregnant women.

“It has been observed that pregnant patients may have a higher mortality rate with Lassa fever. So healthcare providers need to monitor them very closely. It’s not a death sentence, however, with medical treatment, it might take a week or longer for one to feel better.”

Osuji noted that infected humans could also transmit the illness to non-infected persons if contact was made with their body fluids.

“There can also be person-to-person transmission which occurs through direct contact with blood, urine, faeces, vomit, and other body fluids of an infected person. This is why it is important to wear protective coverings like masks and gloves if you are caring for someone who has Lassa fever.

“If you suspect that you have been infected with the Lassa virus, you should isolate yourself from others to prevent spreading it any further. Even if you have mild symptoms, you should be quarantined,” he said.

“There is a need for people to bring back the safety protocols that were observed during the Ebola and COVID-19 pandemic. Basic hygienic rules like washing of hands properly, use of hand sanitisers and use of nose masks when visiting infected persons or a home where infected persons reside, will help curb the spread of Lassa fever,” Basil added.