Lassa Fever: Why There Are More Public Health Questions Than Answers [Sierra Leone]

Lina Moses | The Guardian | February 21, 2013

The Lassa virus can wipe out entire families. It is transmitted by rats and is endemic to west Africa – so why is there no vaccine? Lina Moses shares her experiences of working in Sierra Leone

I'm in a village in eastern Sierra Leone staring at a row of dead rats snared in branches, leaves and grass. The contraptions are called funnel traps, or tolei in the local Mende dialect. We're hoping these devices and other easily accessible or producible materials will lower the rodent populations in villages sufficiently to prevent Lassa fever.

With a DfID-funded project called Wash (water, sanitation health), Facility Sierra Leone, Tulane University and Kenema Government Hospital are working in 20 villages introducing Lassa fever education and rodent control training. For the project to be successful, we have to control one of the most ubiquitous rodents in sub-Saharan Africa, Mastomys natalensis — the multimammate rat.

Lassa fever is common in this part of the country where the disease can wipe out entire households and cause panic throughout villages. The disease has a gradual onset of fever, aches and pains that are indistinguishable from malaria or typhoid — diseases as familiar to villagers as the common cold. For some, Lassa fever will progress from these non-specific symptoms to sore throat, facial oedema, haemorrhaging and death. Although Lassa fever and its severe consequences are well-known by residents in this region, fewer know the rat that commonly infests their homes can spread the disease...