A New Jersey man died last night after having been diagnosed with Lassa fever—an infectious disease from West Africa rarely seen in the US. The man recently returned from Liberia, arriving at JFK Airport on May 17. He grew critically ill after his return, suffering from multiple organ failure, says CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. Health officials say they don't think the case is cause for public alarm, as Lassa fever is not spread through casual contact. About a half-dozen other cases have been diagnosed in travelers from West Africa in the past, and none ever spread the illness person-to-person, Frieden notes. But as a precaution, health officials are trying to track down anyone the man was in contact with during the past week, including health workers at two New Jersey hospitals and people who sat close to him on his flight from Morocco to New York.
The illness is commonly seen in West Africa, where it's carried by rodents and transmitted to humans through contact with urine or droppings of infected rodents; an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 infections occur there each year. Like Ebola, it can spread through contact with blood, feces, or vomit of an infected person. But Lassa is far less likely to be fatal than Ebola and less likely to be spread from person to person. It's fatal in about 1% of cases. CDC officials declined to name the New Jersey hospital where the man first went for care, or the second New Jersey hospital where he was to have been treated with ribavirin, an antiviral; he died before he could receive it.