JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN
— An outbreak of meningococcal meningitis has claimed two lives and infected dozens of people in Upper Nile State in South Sudan, health officials said Thursday, warning that the number of new cases was still rising.
“In Week 15 there were three cases, in Week 16 there were 19 and this week there are already 16 cases," Dr. John Lagu, the director of emergency preparedness at the Ministry of Health, said, adding that two patients have died of the disease.
Meningococcal meningitis is caused by bacteria which affect the brain and spinal cord. The infection causes high fever, confusion, headache and vomiting. Untreated, the illness can kill in 24 to 48 hours.
The disease is contagious, and spreads particularly quickly among people in close contact.
Avoiding contact with an infected person is not always easy because some people show no symptoms of the disease, even when they are infected, and also because of the difficulting of keeping people isolated, Lagu said.
"Mass gatherings are discouraged but, of course, you cannot discourage them 100% because people have to go on with their daily lives, to buy things," he said.
To try to prevent the disease spreading further, South Sudanese health authorities plan to conduct a vaccination campaign, focussed on the area in and around Malakal.
A meningitis vaccine that costs 50 cents a dose and can be transported and stored for as long as four days without refrigeration or an icepack is available in Africa, and has already had a dramatic impact in fighting the disease in the parts of Burkina Faso and Chad where it has been administerd.
South Sudan lies in the meningitis belt of sub-Saharan Africa, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, and has the highest rates of the disease in the world.
In 2009, 14 African countries reported 5,532 deaths from meningitis, the highest toll since an epidemic in 1996 claimed more than 10,000 lives.