Devastating oral tumors among children living in Uganda, which make their faces deformed and, with atrocious suffering, end up killing them. Behind these deaths is the Lassa virus, ‘cousin’ of Ebola, contracted because children eat mice and bats, often raw. He tells the story of these children in his book in the Senate Shadows of Africa. The lassa virus and the mystery of tumors (Magi editions, Dire group), Marco De Feo, Italian dental doctor who lives and works in Rome and has dedicated himself to missions in Africa and Brazil since 1985.
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In Africa a different virus
Lina Lowal’s story is intertwined with many others, almost all of which ended tragically. “Mine – explained De Feo, during the meeting organized by Sandra Zampa – may seem like a bizarre search and perhaps it is. I feel a bit like Don Quixote fighting against windmills, it’s something really bigger than us: the focus is on equatorial Africa but in reality these tumors are present all over the world. Most likely the virus found in Africa is genotypically different from the one found in, for example, Thailand, the Philippines or Latin America. It really is all to be discovered. The next step will be genotyping, that is, finding out what it is, and let’s talk about the future of research.”
When food is scarce, mice eat
“Marco – he recalled Daniele Giusti, doctor, general secretary of the Comboni missionaries, former executive secretary for Catholic healthcare in Uganda – asked me what Africans ate. I confirmed to him that mice and insects are an important addition to the diet when wheat, other cereals and legumes are in short supply. There are periods when there is nothing to eat and the proteins are those represented by mice. And the children go hunting in the savannah, they are very skilled at finding mouse holes, they capture them, skewer them, cook them and eat them. Marco then began to talk to me about fibro-bone tumors and also about the hypothesis, at that time still only mooted, that there could be a correlation between eating mice and the appearance of various viruses. There, as an infectious disease specialist, my professional interest was sparked”. Today these patients die of starvation, because in the end they are no longer able to eat or breathe. They die by wasting away little by little.
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“Linking a virus to an odontogenic tumor – he underlined Giuseppe Piccinni, director of Microbiology and Virology Irccs Idi – dermopathic institute of the Immaculate in Rome – is the real discovery that could open up a glimmer of hope for the future. There are many oncogenic viruses, just think of the papilloma virus. The problem, regarding in particular these odontogenic tumors present in Africa, is having identified a viral species, in this case the Lassa virus, which does not take its name from the discoverer but from the village of Lassa, where unfortunately they lost their lives some missionaries, affected by this infection of which nothing was known. The Lassa virus is part of the family of great hemorrhagic fevers, it is a virus that belongs to the family of the so-called ‘arenaviruses’, it is an RNA virus which, in general, we are not familiar with in Europe, fortunately for us. It is a virus that we define as zoonosis, meaning the natural reservoir for this type of infection is not represented by humans but by an animal, in this case the rat, the bat and the snake. And it has no possibility of being treated except through specific antiviral drugs, which are very difficult to find in Africa.
How it is transmitted
The virus is transmitted to humans through contact with excrement and urine of animals, in this case rats. The infection, which has an incubation period of approximately three weeks, can however be transmitted from human to human. 10-12% of untreated infections can lead to death, a percentage that drops to 1-2% if infections are treated. In Africa, however, especially in the most distant villages, remote and difficult to reach from health facilities, treatments do not arrive and it is not possible to transfer the patient to hospital. Today, research aims to find a medical therapy that can replace radical surgery, which involves suffering and further facial deformations in young patients. “We are facing a cultural problem – Piccinni specified – the villagers will not stop eating mice, because for them this food is a reason for survival.
The only possibility, which is very difficult to achieve, would be to sanitize the places where people live in communities as much as possible, that is, to eliminate the presence of rats or bats in homes, villages and communities”.
The hope of a vaccine
But the road, even if difficult, seems to have been traced. ‘For the future – she concluded – I believe it is right to focus on vaccination. But in order to design a vaccine the path is very long, a pandemic like Covid is needed.
We are working to genotype this virus, thus having more information from a biomolecular point of view to be able to ensure that if a vaccine were to be built, it would be built exactly for that type of virus. A virus, I remember, which mutates and which presents, for example, the same difficulties for the construction of a vaccine for Hepatitis C, which currently does not exist. However, we must fight against a political, bureaucratic, African, non-European wall to ensure that certain samples can be brought here to Europe and studied. It’s very difficult because they don’t let biological material out of Uganda even just for study, and so we’ll have to do all this in Africa.”