The International Red Cross/Red Crescent recently issued a warning that at least 14 African nations could face one of the worst meningitis epidemics since 250,000 people fell ill with the disease in 1996, in an outbreak that killed 25,000 people.
The affected countries stretch across the continent south of the Tropic of Cancer in what the World Health Organization deems the “meningitis belt,” including Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo and Uganda.
These countries are at risk because they are prone to extremely dusty winds during the dry season along with usually cold nights, decreasing the immunity of the pharynx at the back of the throat. The meningitis bacteria are most easily transmitted through close contact, especially through sneezing, coughing, sharing eating utensils or kissing. Throughout much of the region that makes up the so-called meningitis belt, people often live in crowded family quarters and sometimes travel to large markets, making transmission of the disease easier. (It can also spread quickly in dormitories.)
During last season in Burkina Faso meningitis infected more than 20,000 people, disabling 2,000 and killing more than 1,300. Across Africa, more than 1,600 died from the disease.
The first wave of the disease this season could hit as early as February, the IFRC warned. One problem is there are presently only seven million doses for meningitis vaccines to cover an estimated population of roughly 80 million spread throughout these 14 countries. The IFRC has initiated a €600,000 program that will train 25,000 volunteers in sensitization and community-based health training.
It even sounds dirty
According to WHO, “Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord,” which makes it a very serious disease. The two most common forms of meningitis are bacterial and viral. While still dangerous, viral meningitis is far less severe and can be treated with antibiotics.
For most victims, meningitis begins feeling like the flu and people often complain of stick neck, high fever, light sensitivity, confusion, headaches and vomiting. While vaccines only target bacterial meningitis, its symptoms progress much quicker than its viral cousin. This disease, which is fatal in five to 10 percent of all patients, and can cause degrees of brain damage and/or hearing loss in up to 20 percent of victims.
N. meningitidis A, C and W135 are the main strains that attack Africa. One strategy to fight the disease is to vaccinate a “critical percentage” of the population, which will extend protection to those who haven’t received the vaccine. On the international market, vaccines can run as much as $14 per dose, out of the reach of some Africans. Governments often try to purchase the vaccines from an international coordination group at roughly 66 cents per dose. However, these vaccines sometimes can arrive after an epidemic has picked up steam. Another problem is that vaccines do not exist for some serogroups of meningitis.