Did you know it’s been 50 years since Lassa fever was discovered in northeast Nigeria, in a town called Lassa in Borno State?
For this reason, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) organized the Lassa Fever International Conference in Abuja from 16-17 January 2019 to better understand the history, current status, and how our current knowledge of the virus can be improved in order to prevent, detect, and control the disease and save lives.
Why Focus On Lassa Fever?
Lassa fever was first discovered in Nigeria and named after one of our towns, yet we have no cure, vaccine, or significant research that has been done. We continue to have outbreaks all over the country and many people are still dying from the disease.
In fact, in 2018 there were 633 cases and 171 deaths in 23 states across the country and already, just in the first 2 weeks of 2019, we’ve had 60 cases and 16 deaths in 8 states.
So we need to think deeply about how little we really know about the disease and what actions we need to take. That’s why this conference was put together.
588 people including nationals from 18 countries across Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Europe, 11 plenary speakers, 6 panelists, and 160 oral and poster presenters, gathered in Abuja for 2 days to “cerebrate” (rather than celebrate) 50 years of the existence of the viral hemorrhagic disease Lassa fever.
“We need not wait for the lion to be done yawning before we run.”
-Prof Oyewale Tomori
The venerable Professor Oyewale Tomori, a veteran virologist delivered an exciting plenary lecture on “Quinquagenary of a Nigeria Conundrum: Fifty years of the Lassa Fever – Hotter, Bigger and Longer.” During his speech, Prof. Tomori said it’s high time we as Nigerians took over our problem and we need to change our attitude before we can chase Lassa fever.
His Excellency Executive Governor of Nasarawa State, Umaru Tanko Al-Makura, a Lassa fever survivor, shared the personal story of how 2 of his sons contracted the virus (he sadly lost one of his sons to the disease while the other son recovered but with deafness) and then he also contracted the virus and became deaf after recovery.
He took us on his journey into politics and how he has been able to push forward despite his significant hearing impairment as a result of the Lassa virus. His inspiring story typifies the adage that says “There’s ability in disability.”
Our Managing Director Niniola Soleye was one of the panelists and she spoke about Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) as a science and practice that should be used inside a health facility to prevent the spread of diseases between patients, healthworkers, relatives, visitors, and others. She shared that IPC should become an ongoing way of life in all of our health facilities, rather than a strategy implemented when there’s an existing outbreak. Prevention is key!
Professor Njidda M. Gadzama, Professor Emeritus of Zoology and Environmental Science, University of Maiduguri, Borno state, told us the impact the Lassa fever disease had on his hometown – Lassa. He said the hospital where Laura Wine, the first identified Lassa fever patient was working (Lassa Mission Hospital) is now forlorn and neglected as the stigma that came with naming the viral disease after the town still persists till date. His efforts to remove the stigma associated with his hometown is one of the reasons the World Health Organization’s (WHO) best practices for naming a new infectious disease include guidelines to avoid naming the disease after any geographic location.
Other panelists included Dr. Sylvie Briand, Director Infectious Hazards Management, WHO; Dr. Philip Onyebujoh, Senior Policy Advisor to the Director Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC); Dr. Faisal Shuaib, Executive Director, National Primary Health Care Development Agency, who was the Head of Emergency Response during the 2014 Ebola outbreak; and Prof. David Heymann, Head of Centre on Global Health Security, Chatham House.
There were also parallel sessions delivered by 80 researchers on different topics including: animal and environmental health response, laboratory surveillance and diagnostics, case management, vaccines and innovations, epidemiology and surveillance, policy and coordination of response, infection prevention and control, as well as risk communications and community engagement.
To bring the Conference to a close, some institutions and individuals received awards in different categories:
Congratulations to all who were recognized for their hard work in the fight against Lassa fever in Nigeria. The outcome of the conference proved that we should not be celebrating 50 years of a virus that has killed far too many Nigerians. However, we should use this milestone to look forward and take serious, immediate actions to curb the spread of this deadly virus within our borders.
We all need to keep pushing until we achieve a Lassa fever free Nigeria!