Lassa fever death evokes Ebola fears

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Federal health officials are stepping up their on-the-ground response in New Jersey after a West African traveler died of a rare disease in a sequence of events that bears a striking resemblance to the beginning of the Ebola scare last fall. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed late Monday that the man had died from a disease called Lassa fever, which is extremely rare in the United States but more common in parts of West Africa where he had traveled.

While the CDC said the man posed an “extremely low” risk to others, the agency is taking all precautions after taking flak for its handling of a man who was diagnosed with, and later died from, Ebola in Dallas last fall.   

The man in New Jersey, who was not identified by the CDC, admitted himself to a hospital on May 18 with a sore throat, fever and fatigue. When asked about his travel history, he did not indicate travel to West Africa and was sent home the same day. But three days later, he returned with worse symptoms and died shortly thereafter.

While Lassa fever is typically less deadly than Ebola, CDC is working with New Jersey health officials to find any potential contacts. Anyone who is considered at risk will be monitored for 21 days — just as with Ebola.

The CDC will be seeking out health workers, family members and people who shared his plane from Liberia to Morocco to JFK International Airport on May 17.

The New Jersey hospital’s failure to immediately diagnose the disease — and to ultimately let the man leave the hospital — mirrors the experience of a man in a Dallas hospital who became the first person to die from Ebola in the United States.

The man in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, was not asked about his travel history and was let go from the hospital one day after he checked himself in. Within days, he had returned in a far worse condition and could not ultimately be saved.

Duncan also became the first person to spread Ebola in the U.S. Lassa fever has never been spread from person-to-person in the United States, and there have only been six documented cases in the last 40 years.