The Federal Government is currently engaging with the World Health Organisation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations for the development of new therapeutics and a vaccine for Lassa fever.
Health Minister Osagie Ehanire disclosed this at a three-day National Case Management Training on Lassa fever.
Ehanire, represented by the Minister of State, Mr. Joseph Nkama said that the ministry decided to embark on the capacity building in Lassa fever case management, because “we know that doing so will go a long way in reducing mortality in these patients.
“It is more than 50 years since Lassa fever was first diagnosed in Nigeria. Over the years, some states had been endemic while others record annual outbreaks.
“The ministry is engaging with WHO and the CEPI for the development of new therapeutics and a vaccine for Lassa fever.
“Over the last five years, the country witnessed a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases of Lassa fever including healthcare worker infections, reinforcing the need to build capacities to adequately manage cases when they arise,” he said.
According to him, the ministry is committed to ensuring the decline in Case Fatality Rate from the 2021 figure of 20.5 per cent to 19.8 per cent in 2022 continues.
He said such an effort would continue until Lassa fever ceases to become a public health threat in Nigeria.
“The recent COVID-19 pandemic has taught the country that it cannot afford to undermine any effort put into addressing and reducing high-risk viral pathogens like Lassa fever.
“It cannot only mutate and pose a new threat, but globalisation can quickly lead to the spread of the disease to non-endemic countries,” he said.
Ehanire said the country has advanced not only in the capacity to diagnose Lassa fever but also in the sequencing of the virus genome to monitor the circulating Lassa viruses.
He said that the country’s commitment was also evident in the emphasis on infection prevention and control measures among healthcare workers to reduce rates of infection within healthcare facilities.
“Now we want to build capacity in case management because we know that doing so will go a long way in reducing mortality in these patients.
“This training is part of the government’s effort to further reduce mortality from Lassa fever, the ministry has not made this progress in addressing Lassa fever epidemics working alone.
“WHO has been integral in their support. Their support to the country has spanned from sensitisation and training of healthcare workers to the provision of infection control commodities to treatment centres,’’ he said.
The minister said that the WHO also supported public awareness initiatives, surveillance, and outbreak response at the state level through the emergency operations centre and at the national level.
He said that the Institute of Lassa Fever Research and Control, Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital, had been actively involved in the management of Lassa Fever patients for many years.
Ehanire said the agencies have also carved a niche for themselves as centres of excellence for the management of viral hemorrhagic fevers, despite several challenges.
According to him, there has been significant improvement in case management since ISTH became actively involved.
He said before stakeholders’ involvement, blood samples had to be sent to Europe and South Africa for confirmatory testing, with results being unavailable for weeks to months.
Ehanire said that the institute’s activities have also seen expansion from clinical case management to research including large-scale epidemiological studies.
He said that the Integration Consortium inaugurated at the training would be led by Nigeria working with international partners and the WHO to articulate and prepare centres for clinical trials.
“We must not forget that the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over and that some patients may have Lassa fever and COVID-19 at the same time and suffer complications from both of them.
“These patients need particular attention and timely decision-making is key in this regard.
“We have made internationally recognised giant strides as a nation, in addressing COVID-19.
“Molecular laboratories now exist in all Teaching Hospitals, Federal Medical Centres, and Specialist Hospitals,’’ he said.
According to him, in the same vein, modern Intensive Care Units, well-equipped isolation centres, and Personal Protective Equipment have been made available at these centres.
“This government is committed to addressing Lassa fever as well as we have addressed COVID-19 so far,’’ he said.
Dr Sylvanus Okogbenin. Chief Medical Director, Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital, said the theme of the workshop was “Reducing mortality in Lassa fever patients and building capacity for case management”.
According to him, the ministry is desirous to build a critical mass of well-trained clinicians and health care workers with the capacity for case management to reduce mortality from Lassa Fever Disease.
Okogbenin said that Nigeria has recorded the highest prevalence in the recent past, with annual outbreaks of public health concern.
He said in 2018, WHO prioritised Lassa fever as a highly infectious disease in need of urgent research and countermeasures including vaccine development.
Okogbenin said that in 2022 in week 26, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control reported 829 confirmed cases with 160 19.3 per cent deaths
“A particularly worrisome aspect is healthcare worker infection and death.
“This year, 53 healthcare workers have been infected with several deaths. This workshop will also address the prevention of healthcare worker infection and death,’’ he said.
Okogbenin said the workshop would also pay particular attention to the issues of pregnant women with Lassa fever disease.
He said: “In 2022 alone, several healthcare workers across the country were infected during caesarean section following missed diagnosis in pregnant women.”
Prof. Stephan Gunther of Bernard Notch Institute of Tropical Medicine, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Bernard Notch Institute, said the training would help the country.
Gunther said that Lassa fever was always very difficult to manage in the late stage of the disease because many patients would die.
He said the country needed to know how to manage the cases of Lassa fever.
“The workshop will help the health workers to properly address the cases of Lassa fever to reduce the virus in Nigeria.
Dr. Walteri Mulombo, WHO Country Representative to Nigeria, said Lassa fever had been a problem for about 15 years, killing a lot of the patients.
According to Mulombo, the training will address issues regarding case management, the way people are treated, the medicines they are being given, the timeliness of the treatment, and the best practices for its management.