In a study of Lassa fever in Sierra Leone, West Africa, we identified two variables associated with a high risk of death, and we evaluated the efficacy of ribavirin and Lassa virus–convalescent plasma for the treatment of Lassa fever. A serum aspartate aminotransferase level ≥ 150 IU per liter at the time of hospital admission was associated with a case-fatality rate of 55 percent (33 of 60). Patients with the same risk factor who were treated for 10 days with intravenous ribavirin, begun within the first 6 days after the onset of fever, had a case-fatality rate of 5 percent (1 of 20) (P = 0.0002 by Fisher's exact test). Patients whose treatment began seven or more days after the onset of fever had a case-fatality rate of 26 percent (11 of 43) (P = 0.01). Viremia with levels ≥103.6 TCID50 per milliliter on admission was associated with a case-fatality rate of 76 percent (35 of 46). Patients with this risk factor who were treated with intravenous ribavirin within the first six days after onset of fever had a case-fatality rate of 9 percent (1 of 11) (P = 0.006), whereas those treated after seven days or more of illness had a fatality rate of 47 percent (9 of 19) (P = 0.035). Oral ribavirin was also effective in patients at high risk of death. Lassa-convalescent plasma did not significantly reduce mortality in any of the high-risk groups.
We conclude that ribavirin is effective in the treatment of Lassa fever and that it should be used at any point in the illness, as well as for postexposure prophylaxis.