Lassa fever in Benin – German team provides help on the ground

Medical experts that can be mobilised quickly are helping people to spot infectious diseases early and introduce immediate countermeasures.

Rapid assistance can save lives. By working with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine and the Robert Koch Institute, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH has assembled a group of experts that can be deployed swiftly. The team helps developing countries and emerging economies prepare for and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases.

On behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and Federal Ministry of Health (BMG), the group of experts is mobilised when multiple suspected cases of an infectious disease (such as Ebola or Lassa fever) are reported in a country or region. If a disease is diagnosed, it is important to treat those infected in quarantine to contain the spread.

In February, it became clear just how important this flexible, mobilised team’s work is when Lassa fever broke out in the West African country of Benin. As recently as last year, a mobilised team had supported the Benin National Reference Laboratory and, on behalf of the Beninese Ministry of Health, developed a differential diagnosis method for dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika, all of which have similar symptoms to Lassa fever. Anyone who comes into contact with people diagnosed with these diseases has to be examined, meaning that the five-strong lab team had to test hundreds of samples last year. They desperately needed assistance with this task, which is why a mobilised team went to Benin to help process the samples safely and validate the test results.

There is currently no vaccine for Lassa fever and patients need to be quickly quarantined and properly treated to prevent the disease from spreading further. This means having a fast and reliable way of diagnosing the illness is crucial.

Thanks to the support provided by GIZ, more than 120 million people worldwide were able to benefit from improved health care between 2010 and 2015, with more than 300 million people now covered by health insurance.