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Biodefense Scientists Fight Lassa Fever

February 16, 2011

Scientists are at work in Sierra Leone studying the rat-carried Lassa fever with the aim of developing a speedy and uncomplicated process for diagnosing the virus in the event of a bioterrorism attack, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 23, 2010).

A laboratory in Sierra Leone’s southeast is conducting U.S.-funded research on Lassa fever, which is classified as a “category A” pathogen, a designation given to biological agents such as botulism and anthrax that can produce significant health threats.

The disease is found in a particular species of rat that is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and regularly consumed for protein. It is estimated to cause between 300,000 and 500,000 infections annually and roughly 5,000 deaths.

“There’s been a renewed emphasis on those tropical diseases that (government health officials) consider biothreats,” said U.S. scientist Matt Boisen, who is studying Lassa fever in Sierra Leone.

Tulane University is participating in the Lassa fever research effort with the West African state. Researchers in the $40 million diagnostic initiative would like to see their new testing strip method one day ready for use in the field and in the United States.

“There’s a recognition that this is a higher level threat agent,” one-time U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases researcher Thomas Geisbert said. “It would be naive not to think some terrorist group could use one of these things to create terror” (Simon Akam, Reuters/Yahoo!News, Feb. 14).

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