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Meningitis Outbreak Threatens Central Africa - 2002-09-11


The U.N. Children's Fund says a meningitis outbreak in Rwanda continues to threaten the lives of two million people and may spread to Kigali endangering another million people. Nearly 700 cases of the disease have been confirmed, with 83 deaths.

The meningitis epidemic is coming under control in some areas of Rwanda, thanks to a mass vaccination campaign UNICEF and its partners are running.

But UNICEF spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says meningitis is reaching new areas because it is easily spread through the air. She says aid workers are particularly concerned that the epidemic might travel from the town of Bugasera to the capital, Kigali, which is just 30 kilometers away.

"There are a lot of people who ... take buses in to work in the capital," she said. "Now we have done an all out effort in Bugasera, vaccinating everyone that is [age] six months up to every adult that we can find. We think we have blanketed the coverage. We certainly hope so. We can vaccinate people and protect them through the vaccinations. The danger is that it is easily spread. It is spread through sneezing, coughing, direct oral contact. In fact, the first symptoms are very similar to malaria."

UNICEF has already provided more than 650,000 doses of vaccine to Rwanda, and a new shipment of 250,000 doses has just arrived. But the agency says it needs to purchase still more vaccine, and it needs $2 million to pay for it. The additional vaccine will provide protection for the two million people most at risk in Rwanda.

In addition, Ms. Belmonte says the meningitis epidemic has spread to neighboring Burundi, where there is an urgent need to vaccinate children in particular.

"In Burundi, of the 46 cases that have claimed lives, three quarters of those are children," she said. "Children are most at risk to meningitis. They tend to be malnourished in both Rwanda and Burundi. And, so they are coming from behind in a way to try to overcome something that is as damaging as meningitis."

UNICEF Spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says the agency has already begun a vaccination campaign in Burundi, and plans to cover all areas affected by the meningitis epidemic.

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