Lassa virus spread in Nigeria to be studied by US scientists

Lassa virus (LASV), which is a member of the arenavirus family of viruses, may spread from rodents to humans in Nigeria and to understand how this is happening, researchers in the US at Penn State will be carrying out study thanks to $4 million from the National Science Foundation.

LASV causes Lassa fever, an acute viral hemorrhagic illness. Using data from various sources, researchers will map at a broader level the risk of LASV spilling over from rodents to humans — for example, a map showing when and where people encounter infected rodents across Nigeria or West Africa. Additionally, the researchers hope to learn more about how climate change or changes to land use could affect spillover risk in the future.

Researchers say they are incorporating humans into their model to better understand how our behavior and interactions with our environment — like hunting, farming practices or settlement patterns — can play a role in constructing entire disease systems.

According to Christina Harden, graduate student in Penn State’s Intercollege Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, the work will aim to understand how normal, day-to-day human activities — like hunting or growing food — create or diffuse the risk of people contracting Lassa. Through the study researchers intend to closely study how our day-to-day activities are linked to rodent reservoir behavior and their Lassa virus dynamics.

Ottar Bjornstad, distinguished professor of entomology and biology and J. Lloyd & Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair of Epidemiology at Penn State, said the project will be an opportunity to collaborate with other interdisciplinary teams.

“Most important spillover diseases are either from bats, like the current COVID pandemic, or rodents, like hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and hemorrhagic fever,” Bjornstad said. “This exciting international collaboration focusing on Lassa fever — another rodent-borne zoonosis — will involve scientists from the U.S., U.K. and Nigeria and will shed critical new light on transmission at the animal-human interface.”

The researchers said that eventually, they hope their work could lead to better health outcomes in areas affected by the virus.

“Ultimately, this is a disease of poverty that has a huge impact on many lives across West Africa,” Harden said. “Figuring out some of the where, when, how and why people get LASV could illuminate a path towards better disease prevention. The greatest potential impact, to me, is fewer cases of Lassa Fever.”

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