Echoes of Ebola in N.J. patient's death from Lassa fever

While the controversy over the international response to the Ebola outbreak has yet to fully subside, a deadly case of Lassa fever in New Jersey has brought back still-fresh memories of how health officials and a Dallas hospital handled the first Ebola patient on U.S. soil.

An unidentified 55-year-old man who lived in Essex County, New Jersey, died of the virus on Monday, a week after he first showed up at a hospital in the state complaining of tiredness and a fever, the New York Times reports. He was released by the hospital the same day, and while he was asked about his travel history, he did not indicate he had traveled to West Africa. Three days later, he returned to the hospital with worsening symptoms--during which time doctors learned of his recent travel--and he died not long after.

The case bears many of the same hallmarks of that of Thomas Eric Duncan, who became the only person to die of Ebola in the United States after he, too, was sent home from the hospital after emegency room doctors misdiagnosed his illness because they were unaware of his recent trip to Liberia. Duncan succumbed to the virus after his symptoms worsened, and he infected two nurses during his second hospital stay, setting off panic in the country and sending federal officials and healthcare providers scrambling to amp up preparedness measures.  

An additional dozen people were hospitalized for possible exposure to Ebola during the Dallas outbreak that until recently the public never knew about, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. All tested negative for the virus, but were among 179 people who were monitored for 21 days due to possible contact with the virus. It was important to keep these patients' conditions private in order to encourage individuals to report potential developing illnesses, Wendy Chung, M.D., chief epidemiologist at Dallas County Health and Human Services and the study's lead investigator, told the Dallas Morning News.

U.S. health officials had taken note of the New Jersey man's arrival May 17 at Kennedy International Airport, where he had landed after traveling from Liberia by way of Morocco, according to the Times. However, it is unclear whether the hospital and local health authorities knew about one another's dealings with the patient. The man frequently traveled to Liberia because of his work in the mining industry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Thomas Frieden told NPR.

Lassa fever, like Ebola, has strong ties to West Africa, where it is a common affliction, according to NPR. The viral disease also has similar symptoms to Ebola, but, as the Times notes, Lassa fever is less infectious and less likely to be fatal than Ebola, and patients who have it can have symptoms that appear and reappear, whereas Ebola patients' symptoms are nearly constant after they first appear.

Though the CDC said the man posed an "extremely low" risk to the public, it is working with state and local officials to track down people who may have come in contact with the man, according to The Hill. The CDC also has said the New Jersey case is just the sixth identified case of Lassa fever in the U.S. since 1969, the Times reports. 

To learn more:
- read the New York Times article
- here's the NPR report
- read The Hill's article
- here's the study
- read the Dallas Morning News article

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