LAGOS - A growing Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria has killed 101 people, as West Africa battles to contain a flare-up of the virus, according to data from the nation's health authorities released Saturday.

Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) statistics show that reported cases of the haemorrhagic disease -- both confirmed and suspected -- stood at 175 with a total of 101 deaths since August. "As at today, 19 (including Abuja) states are currently following up contacts, or have suspected cases with laboratory results pending or laboratory confirmed cases," the NCDC said in a statement.

Deaths from the virus were recorded in the nation's political capital, Abuja, Lagos, and 14 other states, the NCDC said. While health authorities assure Africa's most populous country of more than 170 million that they have the virus under control, there are fears the actual scale of the outbreak is under-reported. The NCDC said officials have distributed large quantities of drugs, including Ribavirin tablets, and bottles of hand sanitizers across the country to tackle the disease.

It however reported that logistics support and delayed reporting of cases by states are dogging the fight against Lassa fever. The outbreak was only announced in January -- months after the first case occurred in August -- with subsequent deaths reported in 10 states, including Abuja.

Last year, 12 people died in Nigeria out of 375 infected, while in 2012 there were 1,723 cases and 112 deaths, according to the NCDC. In neighbouring Benin at least nine people have died in a Lassa outbreak, with a total of 20 suspected cases, health authorities said Tuesday. The number of Lassa fever infections across West Africa every year is between 100,000 to 300,000, with about 5,000 deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease belongs to the same family as Marburg and Ebola, two deadly viruses that lead to infections with fever, vomiting and, in worse case scenarios, haemorrhagic bleeding. Its name is from the town of Lassa in northern Nigeria where it was first identified in 1969. Endemic to the region, Lassa fever is asymptomatic in 80 percent of cases but for others it can cause internal bleeding, especially when diagnosed late.

The virus is spread through contact with food or household items contaminated with rats' urine or faeces or after coming in direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Moreover, Nigerians have an image problem abroad which makes it difficult to emigrate to the West, but they can stay at home where their services are needed, President Muhammadu Buhari was quoted as saying by a British newspaper on Saturday.

A former army ruler from the 1980s who returned to power as a civilian after winning an election in March last year, Buhari has the image of an ascetic disciplinarian keen to tackle his country's persistent problems with crime and corruption.

"Some Nigerians' claim is that life is too difficult back home," he was quoted as telling the Daily Telegraph newspaper. "But they have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in prisons around the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking," he said.

This is a contrast to some other Nigerian politicians, who often argue that their countrymen are unfairly victimised in foreign countries. "I don't think Nigerians have anybody to blame. They can remain at home, where their services are required to rebuild the country," Buhari was quoted as saying.

The newspaper said Buhari thought a minority of his countrymen could do with improving their behaviour. "We have an image problem abroad and we are on our way to salvage that," he said. Buhari first came to power when he led a military coup in 1983, ousting an elected government.

He ruled for 18 months, during which he imprisoned journalists and opposition activists without trial, executed drug traffickers by firing squad and ordered soldiers to thrash those who failed to queue in an orderly fashion at bus stops. Buhari was himself ousted in the next military coup. In the years following Nigeria's return to civilian rule in 1999, he reinvented himself as a democrat, culminating in his victory against incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in last year's presidential election.