Rift Valley fever outbreak prompts urgent research

Urgent research is underway after a fresh outbreak of Rift Valley Fever Copyright: CDC

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Scientists are carrying out urgent research in order to predict the spread of Rift Valley Fever (RVF), following a fresh outbreak of the disease.

The latest outbreak of the haemorrhagic fever, which attacks herdsmen and their livestock, occurred in East Africa over December. Well-maintained rapid-response mechanisms have ensured a prompt response to cases, despite recent floods.

A biosafety laboratory from the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi has been transferred to the Garissa hospital, at the centre of the outbreak, to fast-track detection of the virus.

Researchers are trying to understand the factors fuelling the current spread, which government officials say has killed 61 people in the remote northeastern parts of Kenya.

Unlike previous outbreaks, recent occurrences have not been concealed or downplayed.

Kenyan public health officials confirmed for the first time that the last RVF outbreak, in 1997–1998, may have killed as many as 200 people. Advances in monitoring for infectious diseases and greater transparency have meant there was no attempt to conceal the gravity of the situation this time around.

Response mechanisms set up during the previous outbreaks have aided the recent response, said Dr Shahnaaz Sharif of the Kenyan Health Ministry. "We were already collecting blood samples and as soon as the first human case was detected, we knew it was Rift Valley Fever," he told SciDev.Net. 

The team of Kenyan and American scientists are trying to determine why at least 80 per cent of people who contract RVF do not get sick, whilst 10 per cent die from the virus. Sharif said their research would help determine the risk factors in terms of where the virus is likely to spread.

According to the World Health Organisation, RVF is spread primarily among animals through the bite of an infected female mosquito, although humans can develop the disease after eating contaminated meat. Female mosquitos also pass the virus through their eggs, making it difficult to fight the virus out of the rainy season.