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Updated Mar 16, 2020

Nigeria has, as of this writing, two confirmed cases of COVID-19. International health organizations like the World Health Organization have praised Nigeria’s proactive measures and the capabilities of local health officials to quarantine those infected and otherwise manage the spread of the virus. Yet, as Nigeria has a handle on one potentially fatal disease, it has been contending with a separate, and deadlier, viral outbreak of Lassa fever. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control announced an active outbreak of Lassa fever at the beginning of February, which usually arrives annually during the November–March dry season. The epidemic began during the second week of the year, and so far the virus has infected 774 people, with 132 deaths, and spread across 26 of Nigeria’s 36 states and its capital territory.

The current Lassa fever epidemic has already surpassed 2019’s record for worst outbreak, suggesting that this round will not only last longer but also take a heavier toll on public health. Lassa fever has a mortality rate of about 23 percent, significantly higher than that of COVID-19, yet media attention has focused more on the latter. Dr. Olubusuyi Moses Adewumi, a virologist at the University of Ibadan’s College of Medicine, blames Nigeria’s lack of surveillance to monitor viral transmitters such as rodents, which allows Lassa fever epidemics to rapidly spread year after year.


Lassa fever
A motorcyclist drives past a street sign for the Institute of Lassa Fever Research and Control in Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital in Irrua, Edo State, midwest Nigeria, on March 6, 2018. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP


Why It Matters

COVID-19 may be a global pandemic as stated by the World Health Organization, but it is not the only viral disease having an impact. Developing countries in the tropics must contend with annual outbreaks of deadly diseases like Lassa, Ebola, and Dengue fever that strain the resources of their healthcare systems. As COVID-19 continues to spread, the likelihood that it will overwhelm the capacities of African healthcare systems is increasing, too. Despite lessons learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, this most recent Lassa fever epidemic reveals that sub-Saharan Africa will need to continue to improve its detection and monitoring capabilities for various viral diseases.

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