PerspectiveInfectious Disease

Understanding Lassa fever

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Science  04 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6422, pp. 30
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav8958

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Lassa fever is a viral hemorrhagic fever prevalent in West Africa that has been gaining international attention as an emerging infectious disease with the potential to cause epidemics (1). Confirmed and suspected cases of Lassa fever have been steadily rising in Nigeria over the past 3 years. Laboratory-confirmed cases have increased from 106 in 2016 to 143 in 2017 and had already reached 562 by November 2018 (2). Part of defining the scope of the problem is trying to assess whether this is a true increase in the number of people afflicted by the infection, due to either changes in the virus itself or the geographical spread of the vector (rodents of the Mastomys spp.), or a reflection of higher rates of detection and diagnosis secondary to the increased attention and interest of clinicians and laboratorians (1). Lassa fever outbreaks illustrate the issues associated with the response and management of emerging infectious diseases: How do you plan the public health, clinical, and community responses to a disease while you are still learning about the epidemiology, pathophysiology, and the ecological factors contributing to the spread of the pathogen? On page 74 of this issue, Kafetzopoulou et al. (3) present the results of a rapid genomic study of Lassa virus (LASV) from the cases of 2018, which have improved understanding of how the disease has been spreading in Nigeria and have led to informed and targeted disease-control strategies. The study also further describes the use of a new and compact genomic sequencing device, which may start playing a larger role in defining other emerging infectious disease outbreaks in real time.