A man in New Jersey has died of a deadly infectious disease from the same part of the world the Ebola virus originated.
Lassa fever was named after a town in Nigeria where Western doctors first identified the illness in 1969. The disease, spread by rodent excrement and contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids — but not casual contact — can merely cause fever, but serious cases bring “hemorrhaging (in gums, eyes, or nose, as examples), respiratory distress, repeated vomiting, facial swelling, pain in the chest, back, and abdomen, and shock,” as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explained. Death from multi-organ failure can come two weeks after symptoms appear.
“In rare cases it can be transmitted from person to person through direct contact with a sick person’s blood or bodily fluids, through mucous membrane, or through sexual contact,” the CDC said in an announcement Monday. “The virus is not transmitted through casual contact, and patients are not believed to be infectious before the onset of symptoms.”
The New Jersey man, who was not identified by health officials, returned from Liberia — epicenter of the recent Ebola epidemic — to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on May 17, as the Associated Press reported. He did not have a fever when he left Africa; he “did not report symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, or bleeding during the flight,” the CDC said.
On May 18, the patient was admitted to a New Jersey hospital that has not been identified “with symptoms of a sore throat, fever and tiredness,” the CDC said. Asked about his travel history, he did not say he had traveled to West Africa. After being discharged, he returned to the hospital on May 21 and “was transferred to a treatment center prepared to treat viral hemorrhagic fevers.” He tested positive for Lassa and died in “appropriate isolation,” according to the agency.
The CDC said Lassa is “less likely to be fatal than Ebola (approximately 1% case fatality rate for Lassa vs. approximately 70% case fatality rate for Ebola without treatment) and less likely to be spread from person to person.”
The situation recalled the Ebola case of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man, who died of the disease after being discharged from and readmitted to a Dallas hospital, where he infected two nurses.
The CDC will track down those who flew near the unnamed Lassa victim on a plane from Morocco to New York, health workers who treated him and others who had contact with him “as a precaution,” as the AP put it. Such contacts will be monitored for 21 days.
Indeed, the CDC said recent successes at containing Ebola in the United States showed that Lassa is manageable.
“We expect to see Lassa fever and other infections like this,” Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, told the Associated Press. “Because of Ebola, we’re now better prepared to deal with it.”
As Ebola threatened to spread through the United States last year, some called for Frieden to resign.
Lassa kills up to 5,000 people per year in West Africa of about “100,000 to 300,000” affected, as the CDC put it; the last case in the United States was seen in Minnesota last year.