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The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, on Tuesday, declared the emergency phase of the Lassa fever outbreak in the country over.

The agency said the decision followed the successive decline in cases below the emergency threshold, and an epidemiological review that it carried out in collaboration with the World Health Organisation.

This, however, does not mean that new cases of the disease would not be detected in the country as the year goes by.

Lassa Fever, diagnosed all year round, peaks in the dry season from November to May.

Nigeria since the beginning of the year has been battling the Lassa fever outbreak which had killed 188 people as of April 19.

Nigeria is now battling two deadly diseases: Lassa fever and COVID-19, which has infected over 1,300 people and caused 40 deaths.

While COVID-19 is a new global disease with less epidemiological information, Lassa fever has become endemic in Nigeria. The country has battled it annually for the past 50 years.

map showing epidemic curve for Lassa fever this year map showing epidemic curve for Lassa fever this year

Outbreak

In the last few years, the number of suspected and confirmed cases, as well as deaths from the disease, have been rising, leading to concerns from health experts.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, 979 confirmed cases including 188 deaths have been recorded from 27 States including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) as of April 19.

In total so far, 27 states have recorded at least one confirmed case across 127 local government areas.

Of all confirmed cases 73 per cent are from Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi states.

The Director General, NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, said the agency recognised that in the absence of a vaccine, Nigeria remains at risk of Lassa fever.

Mr Ihekweazu said in the last two years, Nigeria has recorded Lassa fever cases throughout the year, with the peak usually between January and April.

“Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we remain focused on our prevention, detection and response to other infectious disease outbreaks in Nigeria, including Lassa fever.

“While we have crossed the emergency phase, we know that we will continue to record cases. NCDC remains committed to ensuring a continuous decline in the number of people who die from Lassa fever, by early detection and appropriate treatment,” he said.

map showing confirmed Lassa fever cases by statesmap showing confirmed Lassa fever cases by states map showing confirmed Lassa fever cases by states

Gradual decline

However, in the last few weeks, there has been a gradual decline in the number of confirmed cases and deaths reported from the virus.

NCDC said the “Lassa fever case count has significantly declined in the last three weeks and has now dropped below levels considered to be a national emergency”.

This year’s emergency phase was declared on January 24, and the national Lassa fever Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated to contain the spread of the disease in the country.

The agency said the response was to an increase in Lassa fever cases at the beginning of the year, exceeding the threshold for an outbreak.

Evidence from the weekly situation report published by the agency showed that there has been a gradual reduction in new cases reported across the country in the last three consecutive weeks.

Also, there was no new death reported in the last two weeks.

The decline in cases could be a result of the rains in some parts of the country especially in places with a high burden of the disease.

Also, the number of suspected, confirmed cases and deaths increased significantly for this year as compared to what was reported for the same period last year.

NCDC said despite the end of the emergency phase of this outbreak, it will continue to coordinate the national multisectoral Lassa fever Technical Working Group (TWG).

“This TWG ensures continuous monitoring of cases, as well as strengthening of Lassa fever surveillance, diagnostic, treatment and other response activities across all levels in Nigeria,” it said.

Vaccine study

NCDC also added that it has started coordination with some research institutes in Nigeria on how to develop a vaccine to protect Nigerians against the disease.

Mr Ihekweazu said NCDC and the major treatment centres at Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital, Alex Ekwueme Federal Teaching Hospital Abakaliki and Federal Medical Centre Owo, have begun the process for a large epidemiological study in collaboration with WHO and CEPI.

“This epidemiological study being implemented in Nigeria and other West African countries, is expected to contribute to Lassa fever vaccine development,” he said.

He added that NCDC is working with States and partners to establish more long-term strategies such as improved communication, regular environmental sanitation, enhanced capacity of health workers, and improvement of diagnostic and treatment centres among others.

The NCDC remains very grateful to all its partners and all frontline health workers for their hard work and dedication during this outbreak.

As of the time of reporting, the total number of affected health workers during the outbreak is now 37.

NCDC also advised healthcare workers to continue to practice standard precautions at all times: i.e. wear personal protective equipment such gloves when providing care to an ill patient/relative, as any febrile illness can be Lassa fever.

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