By Lindsay Wong
The recent Coronavirus outbreak originating from Wuhan, China has taken over news headlines around the world. With over 17,000 confirmed cases worldwide and over 361 deaths as of 3 Feb, this fast-spreading virus with common flu-like symptoms like cough and fever has caused a worldwide scare especially among Chinese diasporas. However, in the midst of this chaos, the world seems to have forgotten that Africa is still suffering from outbreaks that have been thriving in recent years.
Since the start of January, there have been at least 195 confirmed cases of Lassa fever and 29 deaths in Nigeria. Since the discovery of the virus in 1969, Lassa fever experienced its largest outbreak in 2018. Outbreaks are a yearly occurrence, but in recent years, fatality rates have increased. Last year, another outbreak occurred, in which around 170 people died out of at least 793 confirmed cases. There are usually more cases in January due to weather conditions during the dry season.
Lassa fever is endemic in the West African countries of Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Nigeria. Humans become infected through exposure to food or objects contaminated with the urine or feces of infected rats. It is transmitted via person-to-person interactions and in laboratories. Symptoms start with a fever, but can develop to severe bleeding and organ failure in worst-case scenarios. About 80% of those infected show no symptoms and the overall case fatality rate is 1%.
The Ebola virus outbreak in 2014-2016 was the largest since its first discovery in 1976. In 2014, there were multiple cases outside of Africa, including the US, UK, Spain, Germany, France and Norway.
Since then, there have been a number of confirmed cases in more recent years, with at least 14 newly confirmed cases since the start of January, the majority of them being in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a result, the total number of cases has risen to 3,416 and the death toll now sits at 2,238 as of 22 January 2020.
Ebola is a severe and often fatal illness that is transmitted to humans from wild animals like fruit bats, porcupines, and other primates. The virus is transmitted via direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected individuals and with materials contaminated by the fluids. Symptoms include fever, aches and pain, and bleeding inside and outside the body (coughing/vomiting blood, bleeding into the whites of the eyes). The fatality rate is comparatively much higher than the lassa fever and varies between 50% to 90%.
Scientists’ efforts to stop the Ebola outbreak have been severely hampered by violence in the region. An outbreak of violence between the national army, armed forces of the DRC, and the Allied Democratic Forces have threatened the security of disease-stricken communities, preventing Doctors Without Borders staff from going to communities to track the contacts needed to stop the virus from spreading.