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"Lassa" Video Documentary

rat hunter

This documentary, produced by Viral Special Pathogens Branch, reviews the 16-year collaboration between the CDC and the government of Sierra Leone to control Lassa fever in West Africa. Filmed primarily in Sierra Leone, the full-color video looks at the disease, the tragedy it causes, and tells the unfolding story of the epidemiology, natural history, and control of Lassa fever through the work of the Lassa Fever Project set up by CDC in 1976.

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Transcript for "Lassa" Video

Narrator

Everybody loves a parade! But this procession through the streets of Segbweme, Sierra Leone, isn't celebrating a national holiday. These people in this West African village are learning how to combat Lassa fever, a deadly disease that is taking the lives of their family and friends; a disease that threatens the lives of health care workers throughout West Africa each day. This festive atmosphere contrasts sharply with the stories these people can tell.

*Natural background sound; patient's heavy breathing.*

*Background sound; health workers talking.*

Villager

My wife was first treated for malaria, and after three days, we brought her here to the hospital at Segbwema. I know about Lassa fever and I am very, very worried. We have five children, and the baby is so young, and very close to his mother. They told me not to bring the children here so they are with a friend. Who will care for them if she dies? I must put my trust in God...

*Background sounds.*

Narrator

The history of Lassa fever began in 1969 with the mysterious death of two missionary nurses and a near fatal illness of a third. The virus isolated from two of these patients was named "Lassa" after the town Lassa of Nigeria where the disease was first recognized. The disease was called "Lassa fever."

Narrator

Lily Pinneo, an American nurse working at the Brethren's Mission station in Lassa, Nigeria became ill after caring for two other nurses who died of the disease. When she too, developed a 103-degree fever and severe ulcers in her mouth, she was flown to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Doctor John Frame, a scientist at Columbia University caring for Ms. Pinneo, sent blood samples to the Yale Arbovirus Research Unit.

Meanwhile, a research team at Yale University headed by Dr. Wilbur Downs which included Dr. Jordi Casals began studying the blood samples of these three missionaries. A few months after his work began, Casals came down with the disease. Both Dr. Casals and Ms. Pinneo survived their illnesses.

Unfortunately however, Mr. Juan Roman, a laboratory technician at Yale with no known contact with the virus, contracted the disease and died in December 1969.

Dr. Thomas Monath

There was a suspected outbreak of Lassa in the eastern province of Sierra Leone. The outbreak was centered in a Catholic missionary hospital in Pangama. But it was apparent early on that this was not a typical nosocomial outbreak and only a small fraction of the cases could be traced to infection acquired in the hospital itself.

Narrator

In fact, most of the patients became infected in their own village. Dr. Monath, with other scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Yale University and the Ministry of Health of Sierra Leone, began a systematic study of animals from patients' homes to determine the carrier of the disease. Hundreds of animals, particularly rodents, were collected from the village and surrounding areas. Several strains of Lassa virus were isolated from a small gray rodent found living in the houses, implicating it as the reservoir host. Since this discovery, several other studies have been carried out in West African village settings confirming the transmission of Lassa virus to man from this common village rodent, scientifically called Mastomys natalensis.

In 1976, Dr. Karl Johnson of the CDC in Atlanta Georgia, sent Dr. Joseph McCormick and a medical team to West Africa to begin extensive research to answer the critical questions surrounding Lassa fever. Through the combined efforts of the CDC, the Ministry of Health in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the Nixon Memorial Hospital in Segbwema with a very capable Sierra Leone medical staff, a research unit specifically aimed at studying and developing a treatment to Lassa fever began to unravel its mysteries.

One of these early pioneers was Dr. George Komba-Kono, a native of Sierra Leone who sat as research physician of the Lassa Research Project from 1978 to 1982.

Dr. Komba-Kono

First of all, the ideas of Thomas Monath and others came in very handy, because they gave us the background information on which to set up any control screening situation. And so Joe McCormick was the principle actor behind it all. He set up the lab and brought in all the equipment and so on and did the public relations because accepting a new program like that can be quite problematic. People didn't understand, they just knew there was fever that went with all the 'meets/meats' and 'mights/mites' around the fever, witchcraft and all, you know. So it was an enormous problem setting up the lab and also, getting the people to understand what it was all about.

Joe McCormick was succeeded by Dr. Patricia Webb. I worked directly under the supervision of Dr. Patricia Webb as director after Joe had left.

Narrator

In the early stages, the symptoms of Lassa fever are often misdiagnosed as influenza, typhoid fever or malaria. As a result, many patients fail to get appropriate medical attention in time.

Dr. Susan Fisher-Hoch

Patients in the early phases in the sort of environment where this disease occurs won't go for medical care until they are really sick because they cannot afford much in the way of medical care. So, unfortunately, they don't present until they are very much sicker and this makes it more difficult to treat and also means we see the disease at a more severe stage. So by the time the patient comes to the hospital they will be very weak, they will have a high fever, they will have considerable pains and they may have nausea and vomiting.

Lassa fever can be very difficult to diagnose, even by people who've seen many hundreds of cases and this is because it can present in all sorts of different ways. But, in general principle, after an incubation period of between 1 to 3 weeks the patient will become febrile, have a fever and not feel very well quite simply. They may have a headache and then develop a series of other body pains such as abdominal pain, chest pain, general muscle pains or pains in the joints.

Patients also frequently develop a sore throat; this can be very severe pharangitis. Then if you look at the throat it will be inflamed and they may even have exudate. And some patients will have such pain in their throats that they refuse to swallow or try not to swallow. Then some patients will then get better at this stage and they do very well. But some others, a small proportion, will become very sick and they go on to start to get increasing nausea and then start to vomit and develop diarrhea and then they will go into shock. Sometimes they have bleeding, sometimes they have respiratory distress and sometimes they will have convulsions or fits and sometimes they will bleed and these patients very frequently die.

Narrator

Lassa fever is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. Lassa infection is fatal to the fetus in more than three quarters of the cases and produces a high mortality in the mothers, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy.

Dr. Aniru Conteh

If they contract Lassa fever within the first trimester, usually the fetus dies; they abort, these women abort and then usually, they generally recover after that. However if they come in the late trimester, say about the third trimester or the second trimester, it is generally very difficult for them. We have found that most of them in the late pregnancy do die along with the baby; we usually lose them.

Narrator

Lassa fever was a surprisingly important cause of illness when two West African hospitals were studied over a five-year period. 12 percent of adults, that is more than 1 patient in 10 admitted to the medical ward had Lassa fever. A third of the deaths in those wards were from Lassa. Similar statistics apply to the children's wards.

Dr. Joseph McCormick

Lassa fever gets transmitted to humans in two different ways. One way is from the urine of the rodent Mastomys natalensis, which is the common rodent called the "multi-man" rat that you find throughout much of Africa, as a matter of fact, but especially in West Africa. This rodent tends to live in houses with humans. It will live there for long periods of time. What usually happens in West Africa the people wake up in the morning, they get a bit of breakfast and then they close their houses up and go off to their day's activities. Of course when they come back in the evening, it becomes dark at 6:30pm or 7pm and what this means for the rodent is that it has sometimes almost 24 hours of night time activity. During that time the rodent will circulate through the house and deposit urine on surfaces such as the floors, the tables, and even in food if the rodent is able to get into the food and other places even on beds. And we believe that people get infected most frequently when they come into contact with the deposited rodent urine on one of these surfaces and is usually gets transmitted through cuts and scratches on their hands and feet.

Dr. Aniru Conteh

Let's look back at tradition. Sierra Leonians have, over the centuries, known rats. They've known all types of domestic animals that live with them in some of the villages. The people trap rats, kill them either for food or other purposes. But to come right back and say that the rat which lives with you, in your farmhouse, is responsible for the spread of a deadly disease like Lassa; that was too hard for the people to swallow. And so we took a whole lot of maverick in education to get the people to really understand that this was really so. I think that was one of the areas where we found a whole lot of problems. A typical example is like in the mining areas where we go to trap the rodents in their houses; we talk to them and they allow us to put the traps. When we leave they throw the traps out. The next day you come, you think you are going to have a catch, your trap is not there and it is by the house. Those are the things that we went through.

But then keep pointing back on the dedication of our staff, they didn't get frustrated and pull out. Instead they would talk and talk to those people again and reset the traps and eventually people got to accept them.

Dr. McCormick

Now the second way people can get infected is from person to person. This occurs we know within households, within family units, especially when one person is taking care of someone else. You have a person who's ill, who's bed-ridden, they may be vomiting, they may even be bleeding for this disease can cause bleeding, and when they take care of this patient and come into direct contact with secretions from that patient they are at risk for getting infected. And we know that that is the second way that people can get infected. Now this can also obviously affect hospital personnel because if someone comes into the hospital with Lassa fever and someone takes care of them, the person who is taking care of them, whether it be a nurse or a physician or someone else in the hospital, is also at risk if they don't take precautions of getting infected from that person.

Narrator

The necessity of health care workers using strict barrier nursing measures became a critical factor in preventing the spread of the disease. Hospital staff are trained to wear gloves, masks and gowns while caring for Lassa patients as well as disinfecting reusable materials and destroying all refuse materials that are used in caring for Lassa patients.

The close contact required between health care workers and patients while delivering babies or performing autopsies or surgeries makes these health care procedures particularly dangerous to the medical staff. Health care workers must be aware that appropriate precautionary measures minimize the risk of contracting Lassa fever and the possibility of spreading it in the hospital. At the same time, the Lassa fever team has made an enormous effort to provide educational programs that inform citizens about prevention of the disease.

Cynthia Perry - U.S. Ambassador

So you find that traditional people look at Lassa fever as inevitable, "its going to infect one of my children, I won't be able to prevent it, and it's a sad thing but 'Insh'allah', you know 'whatever Allah wishes.'" When I first learned myself about Lassa fever it was, for the most part, from people who lived in this country who were so happy that now you don't have to die from it. There is a place you can go, people understand what it is and they are teaching us what is causing it and they were trying to prevent it.

Dr. Dianne Bennett

When we come into contact with other villages, when we travel, we've always done a lot of health education. We tried to focus that energy, add to it, and formalize it a bit. We brought in a VSO, a very clever community arts worker who'd done a lot of education, who ran some puppet shows, organized some dramas, got a disco tape of songs about everything we knew about Lassa fever and all these things were very very widespread. We must have dramas in 30 different villages total.

*Lassa fever song *

Narrator

So the question becomes, how well does information in preventing Lassa fever translate into modified behavior for people living throughout the villages of West Africa?

Dr. Komba-Kono

I mean attitudes are not easy to change over night and that's why there is a long time span. But one could easily see that it took time for people to understand and accept first of all that the rat caused the disease. Because they will ask the questions like 'Well why doesn't the rat die? Why do we die?' I mean a rat is a rat is a rat. 'Why do they live and we are dying from the disease that they carry?' and obviously that took complicated explanations.

Narrator

Once the educational efforts are widespread, people recognize the potential of Lassa fever to cause problems and they seek help. Dr. Dianne Bennett, director of the project in 1986, recalls answering one such request from a chief of a village where 15 people had recently died of Lassa fever.

Dr. Bennett

These people recognized Lassa as an entity different from malaria and other things they were dealing with because they'd had a lot of cases in the village and some prominent people had died, the school teacher's wife for instance. We went in and did our usual sort of education program. We also thought this would be a good village in which to do a study both because we could help the village while we did the study and because we would have the help of the chief, the school teacher and other prominent people in the village and so that we could get a good study done.

Narrator

In this farming village, questions were asked to determine what activities of the villagers might make it more likely for them to become infected. The probability of Lassa infection was increased in people who had close contact with a Lassa patient, such as caring for a sick person, including contact with blood or secretions. Sexual contact with a person ill with or recovering from Lassa fever was also a risk factor. People who caught, prepared and consumed rodents were at a significantly increased risk of the disease. Older people in the village also suffered disproportionately.

These research results confirmed the ideas of the study team and emphasized a message 'don't eat rats.' The rodent reservoir of Lassa virus only invades rural villages but is common in other settings such as the towns in diamond mining areas. There it is thought that the storage of food in houses, instead of storage sites in the fields, brought rodents into the crowded homes.

The saliva, urine and feces of the rodent contain the virus and may infect man from small droplets dispersed into the air. People are cautioned to decrease their contact with the rodents, by trapping the rodents in their homes and particularly by keeping food covered or in closed cabinets. In villages where these precautions were taken, fewer cases of Lassa fever were seen.

Narrator

The chief of the village Mahei Musa responds to the help the Lassa Research Project workers brought to his people.

Village Chief (voice over)

I have been the chief of Peje-Baoma for 6 years. Several years ago I had Lassa fever and went to the hospital at Segbwema for treatment. Lassa is a very difficult disease, some people live, but many of our people have died and your research has helped us to know it is happening so that we can totally eradicate Lassa. It can strike anyone, but the greatest danger is to pregnant women. Thank you for bringing people to help us, we are so happy you are here.

Narrator

Lassa fever affects everyone in the community and the more that people know what can be done, the more hope they have that medical research will develop a vaccine to prevent the disease totally. This school teacher, who lost his wife to Lassa fever, expresses his hope of scientists finding a cure:

Teacher

My wife died at Segbwema, but it was not the fault of the Segbwema people, it was the fault of the Panguama- who did not diagnose the sickness in time. My son was, there are two of them my children, my sons, but after having experienced the death of my wife being caused by Lassa, I rushed the older one to Segbwema, directly, not by the majestry, but to Segbwema, and he survived. So I am asking the American government to please continue to help us to eradicate this bad disease from this area, not only Sierra Leone, but to the entire country so that it cannot spread.

Narrator

At the urging of the Panguma community the Lassa Fever Research Project joined forces with the Daughters of Charity Catholic Hospital to open a diagnostic and treatment ward in Panguma. People are beginning to understand that Lassa fever, once a feared deadly disease, may one day be eradicated.

Narrator

People are beginning to understand that Lassa Fever, once a feared, deadly disease, may one day be eradicated...

Dr. Susan Fisher-Hoch

We have made a vaccine and we are able to test it in animals in the laboratory in America. It seems to work very well. But the problem now is that we have to get this medicine and this vaccine and make sure that it is safe in people, not just in animals, but in people.

*Austin's interpretations*

*Audience applause*

Narrator

Dr. CJ Peters, the new head of Special Pathogens at CDC, was a key scientist in developing and testing of a vaccine against a related disease occurring in Argentina. He is optimistic about the Lassa vaccine, but cautions that a vaccine for the Argentine hemorrhagic fever took ten years from beginning work until it was actually shown to be safe and effective.

Dr. CJ Peters

Lassa fever belongs to the family of viruses called arenaviruses, and there are several other arenaviruses that cause human disease including a virus that infects rodents in Argentina and results in considerable problems in the rich agricultural regions of the pampas. It was possible to develop a conventional live attenuated vaccine against that disease and that vaccine has now been used in one hundred thousand people in the endemic zone. That first arenavirus vaccine used in man, and is shows that we can protect against these diseases with vaccines. We hope that with advances in understanding of the immunology of these viruses and the enormous power of molecular biology, we will be able to develop a safe and effective immunogen for the people of West Africa within perhaps 5 years, that would be 1997. I think we will need 1 or 2 years to develop and select a candidate immunogen, 1 or 2 years to show that it really works in experimental animals, including monkeys, and 1 or 2 years to do the initial testing in U.S. volunteers. Then we will be able to the people of West Africa and ask if they will work with us to show that the vaccine can prevent Lassa fever right there where it is such a terrible problem. Of course, this goal could take longer if scientific problems arise or if we fail to obtain financing for the large-scale production and testing of the vaccine. While all this is going on in Atlanta, there are lots of things to be done in Africa as well; we have to work to blunt the impact of the disease through the control of the rodents and the improvement of treatment, although these measures cannot really eliminate the disease, given the abundance and habits of the rodents that carries the virus to man. We also have to perform the human immunologic studies needed to evaluate the protective efficacy of the vaccine and the additional epidemiological studies that we will need to plan the first use of this vaccine. We have to show for all the world that the vaccine will really prevent Lassa fever, that's the only way to get everyone behind the effort to use the vaccine in the field the way it should be employed.

Narrator

Meanwhile, only one drug is available to treat Lassa fever - ribavirin. The use of intravenous ribavirin decreases the mortality rates of severe Lassa fever particularly if started in an early stage of the disease. But the drug is expensive and unavailable to most West African hospitals. A vaccine to prevent what has been estimated to be an excess of 250 thousand case of Lassa fever per year remains merely a hope, and that hope is especially pertinent for people like this young mother who suffers with one of the most severe complications of Lassa fever - deafness.

Deafness usually occurs just as recovery is underway. Almost 1/3 of the hospitalized Lassa fever patients develop an acute hearing impairment, and approximately 2/3 of these are left with some degree of permanent hearing loss.

Young mother (voice over)

Almost three months after I began to get better, I heard a constant ringing in my left ear. Now I can hear with my right ear, but not my left. I'm so happy to be well, so whenever I find someone with symptoms of Lassa, I tell them to go to the doctor immediately.

Narrator

Deafness was first reported as a complication of Lassa fever in 1972. Clearly, many people with deafness from Lassa fever are not admitted to the hospital; strongly suggesting that Lassa fever may be responsible for a significant incidence of hearing disability. Research evaluations of deaf people have confirmed that Lassa virus infection is by far the most important factor associated with sudden onset deafness.

Austin Demby, the associate director of the Lassa Fever Research Project, often hears the frustrations of people who are to cope with the aftermath of Lassa and its altering affects upon their lives. This father is facing the reality of his young daughter's total deafness as a result of her battle with Lassa fever:

Father

I am tired, I can hardly do it now in a hurry because there is no assistance. And my child is there sick at heart and because she cannot hear. She cannot enjoy any dance - she used to be a very good dancer. But now I cannot remember when she last left the home because of the sense of hearing. You see now she used to be a promising star among our federal guard but now she's downstairs. This is a pain in my heart. I have no way to help her.

Narrator

The obvious question remains, just how widespread is Lassa fever?

CJ Peters

We know that the rodents that carry Lassa fever thrive all over sub-Saharan Africa and are an important pest for agriculture. These rodents belong to a genus the experts call Mastomys, the common name is the multimammate rat - these dozen or so nipples are used to suckle the many offspring they produce each season. If you display the distribution of the Mastomys genus on a map of Africa, it involves practically the entire continent. Currently, Lassa has been identified as an important disease problem only from several countries in West Africa; Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. But we suspect that there are problems in Savannah and cleared forest in many neighboring countries. Our additional concern is that there may be Lassa-like viruses in other countries such as Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Furthermore, the wide distribution of the rodents that may carry Lassa virus, suggest the possibility for spread of the virus, a problem that has occurred progressively in Argentina over the last 20 years. The overall problem is aggravated by the progress that is being made in transportation; as Africa increases internal trade, the possibility of movement of infected rodents is a real danger. We can also predict that among the many travelers to and from Africa, some possible Lassa cases will be included. So I believe that in the future we will see more frequent introductions of the disease to non-endemic areas, not fewer introductions.

Narrator

On February 1, 1989, an American engineer, who was born in Nigeria, returned to Chicago after attending his mother's funeral. She has supposedly died of malaria. Tragically, on February 16, he died of a flu-like illness in an American hospital. The diagnosis of Lassa fever was confirmed post-mortem.

As our world grows increasingly smaller and interdependent, the urgency for finding solutions for Lassa fever becomes a global issue. The dedication of health care workers and researchers like those in the Lassa fever clinic in Sierra Leone have implications far beyond the areas of West Africa where the disease is currently endemic.

Austin Demby

Well we started out in Segbwema a four person team, and now we have expanded to about 32 members of staff. When we came out we had specific questions we wanted to answer, primarily what the natural history of the disease is, we were also trying to find a specific therapy for the disease, and we were trying to work out a way of preventing the disease. So far we've done a lot about therapy; now we have a very good curative drug, ribavirin. We have known a lot about the natural history of the disease, the transmission dynamics and the results of that. We've studied the education component of our research, of our project, which deals with translating all the science we know about transmission to the general public and use it as a basis of preventing the disease.

We are at the stage where we are about to get a vaccine ready for field trial, which is everybody's dream. Hopefully if the vaccine comes out and works very well, we will have reduced the prevalence of Lassa fever in the eastern province to a minimum.

And it shows a major commitment on their part to come out and work with what was known to be a really deadly virus. And I feel very impressed by the output because people are very committed - from the cleaner we have in the lab, to the director. Nobody works 40 hours a week, people work an average 70 to 80 hours a week with no complaining at all and we've seen lots of people come here who are very sick to the point of dying and my biggest pride and the biggest reward I ever get is seeing them walk out of the hospital well and see them again after 1 or 2 months as healthy as ever, or even healthier than they were before they got sick. That's really, that's the biggest reward we ever get in this job in Lassa.

Related Links
 Lassa Fever Online Slide Set
 Lassa Fever Fact Sheet
 Arenaviruses Fact Sheet
Education Materials
If you are interested in other teaching and prevention aids, please see our Education and Prevention Materials page.

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  This page last reviewed July 31, 2012

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