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No, you can’t get Lassa fever by touching an infected corpse

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Two doctors at the Aminu Kano teaching hospital in Nigeria’s Kano state were reported to have died of suspected Lassa fever in late January 2020.

The Kano Focus website identifies them as house officer Ummu Kulthum and consultant anaesthetist Habibu Musa. Other sites give the anaesthetist’s name only as “Dr Habib”.

Now a video circulating on WhatsApp claims to show people trying to touch Habib’s body, which is in an ambulance.

It’s captioned, in Hausa: “Ga Jana, izar Dr Habib din ya Allah ka jadda rahma agareshi, ammafa Jama, a akwai matsala idande ace duk Wanda ya taba gawar da Wanda ya kusanceta zai iya dauka to gaskiya sai dai muyi ta addu, a mu yawaita istigifar.”

This translates as: “Here is Dr Habib’s funeral prayer video. May Allah have mercy on his soul. But there’s a problem. If it’s true that whoever touches the infected person can get infected, honestly we should just pray and seek God's forgiveness.”

Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness that can last for two to 21 days. It is transmitted by infected rodents. The disease was first diagnosed in Nigeria in 1969 in the village of Lassa in Nigeria’s Borno state.

On 30 December 2019 the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control announced an outbreak of Lassa fever in the country. The disease has been found in 19 states so far, and claimed 19 lives.

But can you get Lassa fever from touching an infected person, dead or alive?

Transmitted by body fluids

“Lassa virus is acquired by touching body fluids – blood, urine or clothes soiled by body fluids,” Prof Zubairu Iliyasu, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research at Bayero University in Kano, told Africa Check. “If one has not touched body fluids, one is unlikely to get infected.”

The World Health Organization explains how people can get Lassa fever: “Humans usually become infected with Lassa virus from exposure to urine or faeces of infected Mastomys rats. Lassa virus may also be spread between humans through direct contact with the blood, urine, faeces, or other bodily secretions of a person infected with Lassa fever.”

The WHO adds: “There is no epidemiological evidence supporting airborne spread between humans. Person-to-person transmission occurs in both community and health-care settings, where the virus may be spread by contaminated medical equipment, such as used needles.” 

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