Disease Hotspots as Biomedical Capital: Practices and Meanings of Lassa Fever Research in Rural Liberia

Project Lead: Moussa Douno

Since the discovery of Lassa virus in Nigeria in 1969, scientists have located the virus in the West African region, where the disease is known to be endemic. The region has also been described as a “hotspot” for viral hemorrhagic diseases, including Lassa fever, which is caused by the Lassa virus. The local populations, living in remote areas and confronted with poor living conditions and limited access to adequate healthcare, remain the most vulnerable to this disease in the region.

In the aftermath of the unprecedented 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there has been a renewed research interest in Lassa fever in these vulnerable settings, with Western and local researchers arriving with their arsenal of research techniques and tools, as well as their scientific accounts of the diseases, to supposedly save the locals who “know nothing” about these diseases. In fact, this research takes place in a context of rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding viral infections which are sometimes seen as deliberately spread by Western researchers and their local acolytes. The classification of some of these viruses (including Lassa) as biological weapons reinforces suspicions that the superpowers may be testing them in the region.

Amidst these intricacies, my project aims to understand the socio-political and intellectual dynamics, as well as One Health approaches that have shaped Lassa research in the region. I will also investigate factors that account for the (In)Visibility of Lassa fever within vulnerable communities where research is conducted. Finally, I will explore community members’ experiences of Lassa research projects and the impact of these projects on their livelihoods.

Image Credit: Fichet-Calvet E, Rogers DJ (2009) Risk Maps of Lassa Fever in West Africa. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 3(3): e388. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0000388