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Umeå epidemiologist joins UN expert mission to confront Rift Valley fever outbreak

December 15, 2016

A Rift Valley fever outbreak was recently reported at the border between Niger and Mali in West Africa. So far, 64 human cases including 23 deaths have been confirmed in Niger, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Umeå University infectious disease epidemiologist Osama Ahmed Hassan recently joined an international expert fact-finding mission to Mali as a consultant with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO/UN).

Osama Ahmed Hassan, an expert on Rift Valley fever at the Department of Clinical Microbiology, Virology unit, and member of the One Health Sweden network, describes the recent outbreak as potentially very serious:

"We have learned from the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa that hemorrhagic fever outbreaks can emerge rapidly unless strong countermeasures are taken on the ground. This urgency is why I quickly joined this mission upon the request from FAO/UN."

The expert mission to Mali, conducted between November 29 and December 6, was done in close collaboration between FAO/UN, WHO and OIE (World Organization for Animal Health). The objective was to develop and prepare short-, mid- and long-term action plans to curb the possible spread of Rift Valley fever from Niger to Mali.

Rift Valley fever is a zoonotic viral disease that is transmitted from animal to humans by direct contact or via mosquitos. Outbreaks usually occur after heavy rains, which produce environmental conditions that are favorable for vectors to spread the virus. Outbreaks of Rift Valley fever can cause massive numbers of spontaneous abortions in pregnant livestock and deaths of neonatal animals. In humans, for whom there is no vaccine or treatment, the disease can lead to a deadly hemorrhagic fever associated with renal impairment, meningitis and loss of vision.

In 2006-2008, waves of Rift Valley fever outbreaks affected East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Sudan and Madagascar) and resulted in an estimated 230,000 human cases including 553 registered deaths. Due to fear of further spread of the virus, outbreaks usually result in livestock trade bans. These trade bans lead to severe socio-economic and food insecurity consequences both for export and import countries and have a particularly devastating impact on farmers and pastoralists.

Both human and animal health authorities in Mali believe that the One Health approach is the best strategy to combat Rift Valley fever, because it is a disease at the interface between animals, humans and their environment. Osama Ahmed Hassan agrees that the participatory One Health approach of the local communities at the risk areas for Rift Valley fever outbreaks should be implemented. However, security complications in Mali make countermeasures such as animal vaccination, surveillance, risk communication and animal movement restriction as well as regional livestock trade regulations challenging. International technical support from donors is crucial for countries with limited resources to quickly implement preventive and control measures.

"Unless creative ideas that are relevant to the Malian context are considered, they will be difficult to implement. Swift action is needed before further geographical spread of the virus will take place. We have to remember that the health systems of West African countries have not yet recovered from the catastrophic Ebola outbreak. I believe Sweden can play a role leading in global health issues through research and expert contributions," says Osama Ahmed Hassan.

At Umeå University, a research group led by Professor Magnus Evander, are studying different aspects of Rift Valley fever. The group recently published findings in the journal Lancet Global Health revealing that that Rift Valley fever infection in humans increase the risk of miscarriage sevenfold.

Osama Ahmed Hassan is an infectious disease epidemiologist from Sudan who has been studying emerging zoonotic diseases such as Rift Valley fever for over 6 years in east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. His research interest focuses on better approaches to outbreak investigation, risk communication during outbreaks and innovative tools for surveillance system for early detection of emerging zoonotic diseases. He is committed to focus on using his findings to improve policy to better confront emerging zoonotic diseases on a regional and global scale.
-end-
For more information, please contact:
Osama Ahmed Hassan, Department of Clinical Microbiology, Unit of Virology, Umeå University
Telephone: +46 706 38 2571
Email: osama.a.hassan@umu.se

Umea University

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