Meningitis sweeps sub-Saharan Africa

Published: 25 April 2001 0:00 CET

At least 3,500 people have died in the worst outbreak of meningoccal meningitis to sweep sub-Saharan Africa in the last decade. The meningitis belt which stretches across the continent from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean has seen more than 38,000 cases reported so far this year, although many more are likely to have gone undocumented.

"There is definitely a crisis. New outbreaks are being regularly reported and in some places it seems to be spreading like wildfire. Burkina Faso is a particular case and we are anxious to mobilise as many Red Cross volunteers as possible to ensure a high rate of vaccination. Once the rains arrive in a few months time that should reduce the spread of the bacteria which causes meningitis," said Dr. Hakan Sandbladh, International Federation emergency health co-ordinator.

Meningococcal meningitis (Neisseria meningitidis) is a contagious bacterial disease that is both endemic and epidemic. It surfaces annually during the dry season, with cyclical outbreaks of epidemic proportions every seven to eight years. N. meningitidis is a common bacteria usually found in the mucosal membranes of the nose and throat. About 5-10% of people are asymptomatic carriers who inadvertently spread the disease. It is spread person to person via respiratory droplets from those infected. A small minority of those infected will develop an acute inflammation of the meninges, the membranes which cover the brain and spinal cord.

Even if the disease is diagnosed early and adequate medical intervention administered, the mortality rate is still between 5-10%. In the absence of treatment this figure may exceed 50%. 15-20% of those who survive suffer from persistent neurological defects, particularly deafness. Other consequences of this illness are loss of limbs, mental retardation and paralysis. The most affected tend to be young children, teenagers and young adults.

"Many of the children that survive are marked for life by deafness, blindness and other neurological problems, therefore they need to be vaccinated in time." says Dr. Sandbladh.

The International Federation launched an appeal on 25 April for 480,000 Swiss francs to cover seven of the worst-affected countries, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire where much of the effort will be concentrated on ensuring that Red Cross volunteers get high-risk groups to vaccination centres as quickly as possible. Information and awareness materials will be produced to enable teams of Red Cross volunteers to mobilize the population and disseminate essential messages concerning prevention and detection of the first symptoms of meningitis.

The International Federation is procuring an additional 400,000 doses of vaccine for Burkina Faso where 1,525 deaths have been officially reported since the beginning of the year from a caseload of 10,897. This follows on the mobilisation by the Red Cross last month of one million vaccines, needles and syringes for Ethiopia where they have been dispatched to 500 trained Ethiopian Red Cross volunteers active in the field.

Dr. Sandbladh said: "The magnitude of the outbreak has caused a serious shortage of vaccine worldwide but together with the World Health Organisation, Unicef, MSF we are screening requests for vaccine and ensuring proper targetting while vaccine production is stepped up."