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Photograph: Photo by John Atherton, used under CC BY-SA

Some 40 people have died after an outbreak of Lassa fever in northern Nigeria, the Health Ministry said on Friday.

The number of people infected by the outbreak, which started in the state of Bauchi in November, was now 86, Health Minister Isaac Adewole said.

"Lassa fever is not new to us in Nigeria, what is new is that it has continued to embarrass us," the minister said.

"What is unusual is the large number of deaths recorded so far and these deaths came largely from three states – Kano, Bauchi and Niger," he said.

The three states contributed to about 75 percent of the cases and deaths, Adewole said, adding that the government would take over burial ceremonies from families.

The Lassa virus is transmitted to humans from contacts with food or household items contaminated with rodent excretion. Victims carrying the virus, endemic in the rodent population in parts of West Africa, have symptoms of fever, weakness, headaches vomiting and diarrhea. 

The first confirmed case of the disease was in 1969, in Lassa village in Nigeria's Borno State. The number of cases peaked in 2012 when 1,723 cases with 112 fatalities were recorded.

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