UK Public Health Rapid Support Team to support Nigeria control Lassa fever outbreak

The UK Public Health Rapid Support Team (UK-PHRST) has deployed to Nigeria to help control an unusually large outbreak of Lassa fever, a viral haemorrhagic illness that can cause severe symptoms and sometimes death.

Lassa fever outbreaks occur in most years in Nigeria but on a lower scale. Given the size of the current outbreak and the risk of further spread locally, the Government of Nigeria has requested support from the UK-PHRST team, which is jointly run by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Public Health England and funded by the UK Government.

UK- PHRST monitors infectious diseases, identifying situations where the deployment of specialist expertise could prevent these threats from turning into a global outbreak.

"There is still much to learn about what drives the transmission of Lassa fever and the different ways it can affect people" - Hilary Bower

Humans usually become infected with Lassa virus from exposure to urine or faeces of infected rodents that are unique to Africa, but the virus may also be spread between humans in domestic or health care settings through direct contact with the blood, urine, faeces, or other bodily secretions of an infected person, though this tends to be less common.

LSHTM’s Hilary Bower is leading this deployment, which includes Alex Salam from the University of Oxford, an academic partner in the UK PHRST. Hilary said: “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.”

Four experts make up this deployment - an expert in patient management, two epidemiologists (experts in tracking outbreaks) and a logistician. They will work alongside the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and other experts in outbreak control to support the Nigerian Government’s response. The UK-PHRST will provide technical and analytical support and also assist with important research on Lassa fever that can provide insight for controlling the disease in the future.

Professor Jimmy Whitworth from LSHTM is Deputy Director of the UK-PHRST. He said: “The Team’s remit includes both response and research in outbreak situations. This deployment gives us the opportunity to ensure that operational research is integral to the response to combat the Lassa fever outbreak. By collecting information in a systematic and structured manner we will be able to learn and adapt our response as the situation evolves.”

Professor Daniel Bausch, Director of the UK-PHRST said: “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. We are proud to be assisting the government of Nigeria by offering specialist support that will benefit the country both in the immediate and long term.”

The outbreak is most prevalent in the southern Nigerian states of Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi. Typical Lassa fever symptoms include fever, sore throat, headache, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, with bleeding and shock in severe cases. The public health risk to the UK is low.

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