The reservoir, or host, of Lassa virus is a rodent known as the “multimammate rat” (Mastomys natalensis). Once infected, this rodent is able to excrete virus in urine for an extended time period, maybe for the rest of its life. Mastomys rodents breed frequently, produce large numbers of offspring, and are numerous in the savannas and forests of west, central, and east Africa. In addition, Mastomys readily colonize human homes and areas where food is stored. All of these factors contribute to the relatively efficient spread of Lassa virus from infected rodents to humans.
Transmission of Lassa virus to humans occurs most commonly through ingestion or inhalation. Mastomys rodents shed the virus in urine and droppings and direct contact with these materials, through touching soiled objects, eating contaminated food, or exposure to open cuts or sores, can lead to infection.
Because Mastomys rodents often live in and around homes and scavenge on leftover human food items or poorly stored food, direct contact transmission is common. Mastomys rodents are sometimes consumed as a food source and infection may occur when rodents are caught and prepared. Contact with the virus may also occur when a person inhales tiny particles in the air contaminated with infected rodent excretions. This aerosol or airborne transmission may occur during cleaning activities, such as sweeping.
Direct contact with infected rodents is not the only way in which people are infected; person-to-person transmission may occur after exposure to virus in the blood, tissue, secretions, or excretions of a Lassa virus-infected individual. Casual contact (including skin-to-skin contact without exchange of body fluids) does not spread Lassa virus. Person-to-person transmission is common in health care settings (called nosocomial transmission) where proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is not available or not used. Lassa virus may be spread in contaminated medical equipment, such as reused needles.