A meningitis epidemic in Niger has infected well over five thousand people and killed more than 350. The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders warned there’s no vaccine available for the particular strain of the rapidly spreading disease.
Meningitis inflames the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can spread rapidly in overcrowded areas.
Emmanuel Massar, field coordinator in Niger for Doctors without Borders, also known by the French acronym MSF, said the meningitis outbreak began a few weeks ago and has hit the capital especially hard.
“We are really, really worried about the situation there in Niamey. We are concerned because of the fact that the disease is spreading pretty quickly in Niamey.”
The good news is a treatment is available.
“Basically, for meningitis we have one antibiotic, which is really, really effective. And so if we see the patient soon enough – you give the proper treatment – and it should be ok,” he said.
However, Massar emphasized that treatment must be given early.
“One of the things we are seeing in Niamey is that the patients are arriving really, really late. And sometimes, we really don’t have the time to treat the patients and we lose the patient pretty quickly,” he said.
The fatality rate can be as high as 50-percent if not treated.
The outbreak now underway in Niger is caused by the C strain of bacteria, which is not generally common in the region. In fact, much of the population of Niamey was vaccinated for the A strain in 2010.
Massar said no vaccine is available now Niger for the C strain.
“One of the problems worldwide, there is a lack of vaccines. At the moment, it is not possible to buy more vaccines. It doesn’t exist at the moment. They’re producing more, but at the moment it’s not available. It’s one of the big, big concerns we have.”
MSF is operating a 350 bed meningitis treatment center in Niamey.
Niger is in – what’s known as – the meningitis belt. It stretches across 18 sub-Saharan African countries that are home to about 300-million people.