By KRISTA LARSON and BOUBACAR DIALLO, Associated Press
CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — Authorities in Guinea announced the first death from Lassa fever in more than two decades Thursday, heightening anxiety about another hemorrhagic fever in the West African country where an Ebola epidemic first emerged.
The Ebola outbreak in late 2013 went on to kill more than 11,000 people in part because local authorities and the international community were slow to act when cases first popped up in a rural part of the deeply impoverished nation.
In a government statement, health authorities confirmed that at least one person was dead and more than two dozen others had been monitored for possible symptoms. However, critics questioned why the government was only now making the news public when the victim died Jan. 11.
Further complicating the situation was the fact that the Guinean citizen died across the border in Liberia — the same way that Ebola initially spread. Guinea’s government had vowed to improve its response to crises after initial efforts were disorganized and met with mistrust.
“This official silence in the face of an epidemic is the reason I buried eight members of my family who became victims of Ebola,” said student Allareenni Bangoura in the capital, Conakry.
Authorities in Guinea, though, said appropriate contact tracing was done and that there was nothing for people to fear.
“None of the patient’s contacts in Liberia became sick or tested positive for Lassa,” the statement said. It did not mention whether Liberian authorities had been informed. It said the World Health Organization was told two days after the death.
There is no approved vaccine for Lassa fever, whose symptoms are similar to Ebola. After starting as a fever with aches and pains it can progress to headache, vomiting and diarrhea. According to WHO, severe cases can cause victims to bleed from the mouth and nose.
Like Ebola, Lassa fever can be spread through contact with the bodily fluids of sick people. Humans also can contract it from eating food that has been tainted by the urine or feces of rodents.
Dr. Sakoba Keita, who coordinated Guinea’s national response to the Ebola outbreak from 2014-2016, told private radio station Espace FM that the new Lassa fever case was the country’s first known one since 1996.
The disease, however, has long existed in West Africa. Nigerian authorities have reported more than 440 suspected cases throughout the country so far this year, according to the non-governmental organization known as ALIMA. At least 40 people are believed to have died from Lassa fever there.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.