The World Health Organization has released a report in which it warns of the worst outbreak of meningitis in more than a decade.
Meningitis is an infection of the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is bacteria that is transmitted from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions. Close and prolonged contact such as kissing, as well as sneezing, coughing, living in close quarters or sharing utensils facilitates the spread of the disease.
Outbreaks are a yearly occurrence and at least 80 million people living in 21 sub-Saharan African nations are at risk, a region known as “the meningitis belt.” In these semi-arid Sahelian countries, the danger of the disease spreading is aided by the dust-laden winds and cold nights, making people more prone to respiratory infections.
At an emergency meeting, the World Health Organization (WHO) asked donors to provide $14 million USD to purchase 12 million doses of vaccine materials, and to cover transport, storage and insurance costs. The 12 million doses are a minimum according to the WHO, and must be positioned for response in case of an epidemic. Additionally, the WHO wants to set up a security stock of 500,000 doses in each of the countries situated in the meningitis belt.
Last year, only seven million doses of the meningitis vaccine were available to the entire region because of funding shortfalls and a global deficit in vaccine production.
Dr. Deo Nshimirimana, Director of the Communicable Disease Control Department at the WHO Africa office, said, “We need to educate everybody so that we can be prepared in case of an epidemic.”
Dr. Nshimirimana also stated that the number of cases have increased in the last two seasons. Between 1995 and 1997, the last time there was a major epidemic in the region, at least 250,000 were infected and 25,000 people died.
Even with early diagnosed and standard treatment, 5-10% of meningitis patients die, typically within the first 24 and 48 hours of experiencing symptoms. Many thousands of survivors live on with brain damage, hearing loss or learning disabilities.