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Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Hypochondriac's Nightmare

Lassa fever – ever heard of it? I hadn’t until I received a question Tuesday from a student wanting to know if we had any resources on the subject. A quick search of our catalog told me that we did, and that was all there was to that request. The student only wanted to know if we had any resources – she didn’t actually want to know anything about the disease. But I did.

I warily clicked my way over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. I say warily because my imagination has a small (large) tendency to run away from me when it comes to matters of health. I wouldn’t exactly label myself a hypochondriac (but my fiancĂ© probably would), but maybe I do spend a little more time than most contemplating the status of my health. Maybe I even overreact sometimes. For example, the other day I developed a headache after work, a tiny one, mind you. My instinctual reaction: I scoured WebMD and concluded that I must have a brain tumor. Then the headache went away and realized it was just eyestrain and tension. That kind of overreaction doesn’t happen that often, though. Maybe once or twice a day. Even though I’m not a hypochondriac, how can I not think about getting sick when there is so much junk out there lurking in our grimy, unsanitary world, constantly conspiring to ambush my immune system?

Cue lassa fever, a West African virus discovered in 1969. It’s a disease with so many varied and non-specific symptoms that doctors often have trouble diagnosing it. Possible symptoms include fever, sore throat, chest pain, back pain, cough, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, facial swelling, hearing loss, tremors, and encephalitis.  The next time I think I have pink eye, I’ll make sure my doctor includes a test for lassa fever in my exam, just to be on the safe side. Blood pressure? Check. Iron levels? Check. Lassa fever? Check.

The good news about lassa fever is that it’s treatable, and it isn’t usually fatal. It’s treated with the antiviral drug Ribavirin, and only about 1% of the 100,000 to 300,000 people diagnosed yearly die from the disease. The most common way to contract it is from the excrement of the mastomys rodent (ewww) or through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids (ewww). Did I mention that this virus has only been found in West African countries so far?

So, maybe I can rule out lassa fever – for now. But if your interest (or worry) has been aroused, you can poke around the CDC website as well as our resources to learn more about lassa fever and other diseases.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take some more vitamins.  I think I may be getting a cold ... or pneumonia.

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