UN agencies boost efforts to prevent further spread of Lassa fever in Benin

Medical staff discuss a patient in the Lassa Fever Ward at Kenema Government Hospital, Sierra Leone. Lassa fever is a rodent-borne, acute viral haemorrhagic illness endemic to parts of West Africa. Photo: UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

11 February 2016 – Following the outbreak of Lassa fever in Benin, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) officials in the country are scaling up an emergency response to help prevent further spread of the disease.

To date, there have been four confirmed and 52 suspected cases of the disease in Benin, resulting in 17 deaths – two of them health workers. One of the confirmed cases is a 4-month-old child currently under treatment in Tchaourou, in the north-east of the country, the two agencies said in a joint press release.

The agencies noted that Government authorities have been on the alert since early January, when a pregnant woman with symptoms of the disease died and six health workers in the same hospital in central Benin showed similar symptoms. Earlier this month, several more cases were tested by the Nigerian reference laboratory and another three turned out to be positive.

With support from WHO, UNICEF and humanitarian partners, national authorities in Benin have taken emergency measures in response to the outbreak, including setting up quarantine units in affected areas to isolate and treat victims; establishing a contact tracing system to find those who might have been exposed to the disease; and mobilizing a network of almost 200 community health workers across the country to monitor the contacts.

Authorities in the country have also been repositioning Ribavirin, known to be effective against the disease, in the capital city of Cotonou and in affected areas, and distributing personal protection equipment for health-care workers. In addition, a public awareness campaign with messages broadcast by local radio and television and through online media has been launched.

According to WHO, , Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness caused by Lassa virus, a member of the arenavirus family of viruses. It is transmitted to humans from contacts with food or household items contaminated with rodent faeces. The disease is endemic in the rodent population in parts of West Africa. The virus can also be transmitted by contact with an infected person via biological liquids: blood, urine, saliva, sperm, vomit or faeces. The incubation period of the virus is six to 21 days.

The first symptoms of the disease are fever, physical fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, abdominal pains, sore throat. Neck or facial swelling can sometimes be observed. Ribavirin is an efficient treatment to fight the Lassa fever if it is administered as soon as the first signs appear.

The agencies recommend the following measures to enhance prevention: from the very first signs, it is imperative to immediately go to the nearest health centre; wash hands regularly with water and soap; ensure an adequate protection of food stocks and leftovers at home; avoid the manipulation and consumption of rats; avoid contact with any person suspected or confirmed with the Lassa fever; stay away from faeces, urine, saliva, vomit and contaminated objects of a person suspected, confirmed or declared dead of the Lassa fever; do not touch the body of a person suspected of having died from the Lassa Fever, even during funerary ceremonies.

To date, an ongoing epidemic in neighbouring Nigeria has seen 175 cases, 101 deaths and 70 confirmed cases in 19 states including Niger and Oyo states, sharing a border with Benin.

Benin was hit by a Lassa fever outbreak between October 2014 and January 2015. At that time, 16 cases were registered and nine people died. Among the casualties, two were confirmed to be Lassa fever. Relevant authorities declared the end of the epidemic per international sanitary regulations which recommend the observance of two periods of 21 days during which no new case is registered.


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