The Nigerian government has announced plans to develop new therapeutics and a vaccine for Lassa fever, a viral haemorrhagic fever caused by the Lassa virus.
The minister of health, Osagie Ehanire, while speaking at the opening of a three-day National Case Management Training on Lassa Fever in Abuja on Tuesday, said this is part of efforts to ensure a decline in Lassa fever cases until it ceases to become a public health threat in Nigeria.
Represented by the minister of state for health, Ekumankama Joseph, he said the government is engaging with the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) for the development of new therapeutics and a vaccine for the disease.
Mr Ehanire said Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (ISTH) will also play a critical role in the development of the Lassa fever vaccine.
He explained that Lassa fever has become endemic in some states in the country while others record regular outbreaks.
The minister also noted that the country has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of confirmed Lassa fever cases, including health workers’ infections in the last five years.
“Hence, reinforcing the need to build capacities to adequately manage cases when they arise,” he said.
At the event, the minister inaugurated the INTEGRATE Consortium to be led by Nigeria working with international partners and the WHO to articulate and prepare centres for clinical trials.
“The recent COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we cannot afford to undermine any effort put in addressing and reducing high-risk viral pathogens like Lassa fever, as not only can they mutate and prove a new threat, but globalisation can quickly lead to the spread of the disease to non-endemic countries,” he added.
Speaking at the event, the Chief Medical Director, ISTH, Sylvanus Okogbenin, said the INTEGRATE Consortium is a global alliance against Lassa fever.
Mr Okogbenin said the ISTH has taken the lead and formed this consortium with both Nigerian partners and international partners.
“The Nigerian partners, for now, are the Federal Medical Centre Owo and the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital. We are also hoping to soon include the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital and the Teaching Hospital in Bauchi,” he said.
He explained that the Consortium is to work with the WHO and other international bodies for the development of new drugs and vaccines for Lassa fever.
“We strongly believe we can get a potent vaccine for Lassa fever and evidence is showing that if we do that, then we can almost completely remove Lassa fever as a disease entity,” he said.
In his remarks, WHO Country Representative, Walter Mulombo, said the organisation will continue to support Nigeria’s efforts aimed at eliminating Lassa fever.
Mr Mulombo said special focus will be on research to ensure the world tackles the virus once and for all.
Lassa Fever in Nigeria
Lassa fever was first discovered in Nigeria in 1969 and has steadily become endemic in many communities.
Although found in many West African countries, Nigeria has recorded the highest prevalence in the recent past, with annual outbreaks of public health concern.
In 2018, WHO prioritised Lassa fever as a highly infectious disease in need of urgent research and countermeasures including vaccine development.
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Mr Okogbenin said as of week 26 in 2022, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has reported 829 confirmed cases with 160 deaths.
He noted that a particularly worrisome aspect is healthcare workers’ infection and deaths. “This year alone, 53 healthcare workers have been infected with several deaths,” he said.
Mr Okogbenin said the objectives of the training are spelt out in its theme and sub-theme: “Reducing mortality in Lassa fever patients and building capacity for case management”.
He said the training aims to address the prevention of healthcare workers’ infection and death.
He noted that it will also pay particular attention to the issues of pregnant women with Lassa fever disease.
“In 2022 alone, several healthcare workers across the country were infected during caesarean section following missed diagnosis in pregnant women,” he said.
He noted that highly trained and motivated clinicians and healthcare workers with a high index of suspicion, early diagnosis, early commencement of treatment, and availability of intensive care facilities have significantly reduced mortality.
“If this is done well, healthcare workers will be able to better manage patients who have Lassa fever; they will be better able to recognise the disease, and know the appropriate treatment to give and that goes a long way in ensuring recovery. We will also be focused on ensuring that healthcare workers don’t get infected during the process of treating their patients,” he said.
He said the training will leverage the knowledge, practice and experience of the Institute of Lassa Fever Research and Control of ISTH.
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