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Yellow Fever in Africa

Yellow fever is a viral disease that has caused large epidemics in Africa and the Americas. It can be recognized from historic texts stretching back 400 years. Infection causes a wide spectrum of disease, from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. The "yellow" in the name is explained by the jaundice that affects some patients. Although an effective vaccine has been available for 60 years, the number of people infected over the last two decades has increased and yellow fever is now a serious public health issue again.


Cause:

Thirty-three countries, with a combined population of 508 million, are at risk in Africa. The disease is caused by the yellow fever virus, which belongs to the flavivirus group. In Africa there are two distinct genetic types associated with East and West Africa. Humans and monkeys are the principal animals to be infected. The virus is carried by a biting mosquito which can also pass the virus via infected eggs to its offspring.


Symptoms:

The virus remains silent in the body during an incubation period of three to six days. There are then two disease phases. While some infections have no symptoms whatsoever, the first, "acute", phase is normally characterized by fever, muscle pain (with prominent backache), headache, shivers, loss of appetite, nausea and/or vomiting. Often, the high fever is paradoxically associated with a slow pulse. After three to four days most patients improve and their symptoms disappear.

However, 15% enter a "toxic phase" within 24 hours. Fever reappears and several body systems are affected. The patient rapidly develops jaundice and complains of abdominal pain with vomiting. Bleeding can occur from the mouth, nose, eyes and/or stomach. Once this happens, blood appears in the vomit and faeces. Kidney function deteriorates; this can range from abnormal protein levels in the urine (albuminuria) to complete kidney failure with no urine production (anuria). Half of the patients in the "toxic phase" die within 10-14 days. The remainder recover without significant organ damage.

Yellow fever is difficult to recognize, especially during the early stages. It can easily be confused with malaria, typhoid, rickettsial diseases, haemorrhagic viral fevers (e.g. Lassa), arboviral infections (e.g. dengue), leptospirosis, viral hepatitis and poisoning (e.g. carbon tetrachloride). A laboratory analysis is required to confirm a suspect case. Blood tests (serology assays) can detect yellow fever antibodies that are produced in response to the infection. Several other techniques are used to identify the virus itself in blood specimens or liver tissue collected after death. These tests require highly trained laboratory staff using specialized equipment and materials.

 

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