How Health Coverage Helped Warn of Deadly Lassa Fever in Nigeria

Mar 72012
  • Checking for lassa fever: The virus was first discovered in 1969 when two nurses in Nigeria died from it.

  • Medical workers test rats, who spread lassa fever, for the evidence of the disease.

  • Lassa fever is spread through rat urine or droppings. Dried particles easily become airborne, and infect humans who inhale them.

  • In an Abuja hospital, people wait to hear if relatives had contracted the deadly disease.

Too often health reporting in Nigeria comes as an after-thought, when journalists offer up impersonal statistics, usually death tolls, of a tragedy that could have been prevented, or at least reduced. But during a recent outbreak of the highly contagious lassa fever, I saw an opportunity for my team of health reporters at the Daily Trust to do something different. What we did prompted government action—and saved lives.

The first indication I saw of a major health problem looming in Nigeria was a casual footnote in two local newspapers in mid-February. The stories were small, buried inside the papers, and reported four people had died of lassa fever, a disease that's spread by rats and can be very difficult to contain.

Sitting in the office of the editor-in-chief, I thought the stories had an ominous, familiar tone. Just a few months ago, shortly after my Knight fellowship got underway, I recalled how an outbreak of cholera began, first with skimpy news reports and statistics. While the media watched and waited, the disease swept through more than a dozen Nigerian states leaving 319 people dead. Something in my journalistic mind clicked: this might be another outbreak far more devastating than the cholera one.

The research I quickly did was shocking. Lassa fever is unsparing and its attack is total. Spread by rats, it can become airborne so that in contaminated areas, every breath of air represents a risk. Victims cough violently and vomit blood. Other symptoms include passing blood in the stool, body rashes, jaundice and other signs commonly found in typhoid and malaria victims. Health authorities were not doing enough in terms of preventative measures and treatment.

At my editorial meeting the next morning, I assigned all members of the health team to one aspect of the story or another. By the time our story hit the newsstands a few days later, the death toll had climbed to at least 36 people in 13 states, with countless others stricken. Our story made the dangers clear: At the current rate of infection, one chief medical officer said, Nigeria was on track to have three million people sickened by the disease within the year, with a death toll as high as 58,000.

After the story ran, the government jumped into action. Within four days, the health minister told reporters that the ministry had distributed over 750,000 doses of Ribavirin injections and tablets, as well as safety gloves and protective vests for health workers. He said adequate quantities of the specific antiretroviral medication used to treat lassa fever had also been released to the affected states.

The public response was immediate, but tragically, not always successful. In Nassarawa, a state near the capital of Abuja, a mother who read the story brought her young daughter, Naomi, to the modern Abuja hospital for treatment. The girl had not responded to two weeks of malaria treatments. Tests showed that she had lassa fever instead. The child struggled, but died eight days later. The disease had simply progressed too far for the medications to be effective in her case, and similar reports were coming in from across the country.

Now, two weeks later, the death toll stands at 67, but the pace has slowed since our first story came out. Our coverage was a significant departure from the reactive reporting of the past, and it demonstrates the life-changing impact good journalism can make. It also leaves the government here working to further contain the disease and struggling to explain why it waited so long to take proactive measures to combat the outbreak.

I am hopeful we have all learned an important lesson here, the government, the public, and most importantly, the journalists I am guiding, so that the next time there is an outbreak like this, the outcome will be even better.