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Health Experts Meet to Combat Meningitis in Africa - 2002-09-27

The World Health Organization says health experts from Africa and international aid agencies have agreed on a plan to fight a new, deadly strain of meningitis on the continent. The WHO sponsored meeting is held this week in Ouagadougo, the capital of Burkina Faso, the first African country hit by the epidemic.

So far this year, the new strain of meningitis, called W-135, has killed almost 1,500 people in Burkina Faso.

World Health Organization officials warn that many more people could die in the upcoming meningitis season, which begins in November and lasts through May.

The officials say the best way to save lives is by vaccinating everyone who lives within an infected area. But they add that they have only limited supplies of the vaccine used to treat meningitis W-135. Furthermore, they say, the vaccines cost so much, up to $50 a dose, that aid agencies can't afford to carry out mass vaccination campaigns in Africa.

A spokesman for the WHO, Ian Simpson, says the experts who met in Ouagadougo agreed on a two-pronged approach for tackling a new meningitis epidemic. First, he says, they will continue working with manufacturers to produce an affordable vaccine. The second part of the plan, Mr. Simpson says, is to stockpile medicine to treat people who get infected.

"But, we also have to look at the possibility of dealing with an epidemic, as we had to this year, where we do not have a vaccine," he said. "And, that involves making sure we have stockpiles of the medicines, which can be used to treat people, medicine, which is rather difficult to administer, because it has to be given intravenously. And so, it is important that stockpiles of medicine, and also of the medical equipment needed to deliver it, is available."

Mr. Simpson says increased surveillance also is essential in detecting meningitis early, so people can receive the treatment they need.

Meningitis is a bacterial disease, which affects the brain membrane. It is fatal in 50 percent of cases, if untreated. Periodic epidemics occur across the so-called African meningitis belt, which stretches from the West African coast to the Horn of Africa in the east.

An effective, affordable vaccine is available for the more commonly found A and C strains of meningitis, but not for the W-135 strain.