Lassa Fever is a relatively obscure disease. It is endemic to West Africa, and you won’t find it anywhere else in the world. It produces an estimated 300,000 – 500,000 cases every year. Approximately 5,000 of those cases are fatal. Lassa Fever is a type of acute viral hemorrhagic fever (pretty much the last words you want strung together in a disease name). The disease was first documented in Lassa, Nigeria. Unfortunately, this town will forever be associated with the disease (don’t worry, you will not be infected upon entry).
Why you want to avoid this disease
Lassa Fever doesn’t produce any symptoms in roughly 80% of cases. It’s in the remaining 20% of cases, however, where things are ugly. If you fall into that 20%, you will see some generalized symptoms like fever and muscle fatigue. But then we throw in some mucosal bleeding and we’re off to the races.
Like Ebola, Lassa Fever attacks multiple organs in the body. You know, one of those diseases that just wants to wreak havoc. We’re talking bloody diarrhea and bloody vomit, abnormally high heart rates, chest pain, possible hearing loss and seizures. There’s much more, but I think you get the picture.
How to avoid Lassa Fever
Lassa Fever has two modes of transmission: contact with an infected human and contact with urine and feces of an infected rat. Airborne transmission is possible between humans, along with transmission via bodily fluids. Any ingestion of infected rat urine or feces (yeah, great, right?), can result in the disease as well.
Outbreaks of Lassa Fever are relatively rare. You can check the WHO website for the latest news for your destination. In any case, it is unlikely that you will come into contact with another infected human. It is health workers who are at the greatest risk for human-to-human transmission.
Now, about that rat poop. Make sure that you are following the basic principles found in our guide for avoiding traveler’s diarrhea and you should be OK.
Diagnosis and treatment
Unfortunately, diagnosis of Lassa Fever can be difficult. Symptoms are shared with several other diseases and unless you are in a fully equipped medical center with capable staff, a misdiagnosis is possible. If you are in West Africa, large private medical centers in the cities may be your best bet for a comprehensive analysis and diagnosis.
While there is no vaccine for Lassa Fever, there is a fairly successful treatment option. If caught early, aggressive treatment with Ribavirin has shown positive results in many cases. In some instances, fluid replacement and a blood transfusion may be called for. You will most certainly be placed in an isolation unit as well. All fun stuff, I know.
The good news is that Lassa Fever is not always fatal. In fact, in many cases it produces nowhere near the level of symptoms discussed above. It is also relatively unlikely that you will come across this disease. However, we should tell you that a guy who recently returned to Minnesota from West Africa was diagnosed with it (see the story here).
The bottom line: Steer clear of rat feces and urine, and make wise choices when it comes to the food you eat. Good general life advice, right?