University of Montréal researchers trace origins of Lassa virus

Lassa Fever | Courtesy of the CDC

University of Montréal researchers, led by Jesse Shapiro, have identified genetic origins of the Lassa virus, tracing it back to Nigeria through distant strains to a common ancestor as far back as 1,000 years ago. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that Lassa fever -- first identified in Nigeria in 1969 -- is difficult to treat as the antiviral Ribavrin needs to be administered within six or seven days following initial infection. This timeframe is further compromised because the diagnosis often comes after this period. 

The team consisted of researchers from University of Montreal, the Scripps Research Institute, Tulane University, Harvard University, the Sierra Leone Kenema Government Hospital and the Nigeria Irrua Hospital. In their findings, they state that the virus has spread across many areas that are also affected by the Ebola virus, including Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

Lassa fever often presents itself with a slight fever, weakness and general malaise in its mild forms. However, in approximately 20 percent of cases more severe complications occur including hemorrhaging, repeated vomiting, facial swelling, respiratory distress and neurological problems. The variation of symptoms make the diagnosis process difficult. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that approximately 300,000 people are affected in Africa on an annual basis.

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